It seemed Brittney Griner would just about do it all her freshman season. Become only the seventh female to ever dunk in a regular-season college game?
Set an NCAA season record for blocks with 223?
Mesh a 6-8 frame, 7-4 wingspan and superlative athleticism to represent the next step in the evolution of her game, while expanding basketball to bounds previously thought untouchable for women?
But the parade screeched to a halt last April in the Final Four, when Baylor walked into the Beatdown Processing Plant that was UConn, 2008-10. Maya Moore did her superstar thing from the perimeter while Huskies center Tina Charles put on a clinic down low, consistently out-muscling Griner for better position. Despite giving up four inches, Charles lobbed in hook after hook over BG42. “I took it as a learning experience, going up against a senior and I was a freshman,” Griner says.
The final exam is coming soon: Baylor, long ranked No. 1 during the regular season, is a top contender to take Connecticut’s title this March.
Last summer, Griner started applying lessons from the UConn loss in the weight room and practice court: “Just getting stronger in the post, holding my base and finishing around the rim better. Different post moves and working on my hook shot.”
With new players like Brooklyn Pope and Destiny Williams, the rest of the team improved, too. And although point guard Kelli Griffin left the team in November, the Lady Bears transferred her duties to the more-than-capable hands of freshman Odyssey Sims. By the fourth game of the season, Griner and her potent supporting cast seemed all ready to visit Hartford and derail UConn short of its 80th-consecutive win.
Not so. Despite the absence of graduated seniors such as UConn’s Charles, Baylor couldn’t make critical baskets down the stretch and lost the rematch 65-64. Griner in particular struggled, missing eight of 15 free throws. “I don’t know what happened,” she recalls, then jokes: “The air conditioning vent above the rim was blowing kind of hard.”
What followed, though, is no mystery. After Baylor-UConn II, the Lady Bears strung together a winning streak of 21 games—the program’s best-ever start. Griner said the team learned to trust each other more and be more patient on offense while watching Sims mature into a star in her own right. “Odyssey is so quick,” she says. “She can get out there and harass the ball on defense as she’s shown, she can shoot the three and she can get the ball to whoever on our team needs it.”
“This year we’re getting a lot more open looks, and we have people stepping up and knocking them down, which opens up the center for me,” says Griner, who has upped her points per game by nearly four from 18.4 last season.
Besides Sims, a major reason the Lady Bears improved their three-point shooting from 28 percent to 38 percent over the last two seasons has been a healthy Melissa Jones; Baylor lost six of the 15 games the senior guard missed last season because of a stress fracture. “When she’s on the court, you can see she calms us down,” Griner says. “We can be up 30, and she can still dive on the ball and rebound and give us that extra possession.”
While Baylor-UConn III deep in March Madness could send women’s basketball TV ratings to historic heights, Baylor’s chief obstacle may prove to be Stanford, which exorcised its own UConn demons by snapping the Huskies’ win streak at 90 games.
Leading that squad are Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike, sisters who grew up playing in the same basketball circles as Griner in the Houston area. “Me and Chiney guarded each other a lot in prep and AAU ball,” Griner says.
Her take on playing the sisters in a possible Baylor-Stanford I? “It would be a good game like always. We used to match up real well in high school,” says Griner. “It was possession to possession.”
It could be such a rough and tumble contest that Griner’s summer workouts—which included pickup games with Baylor football players—should prove beneficial. She notes she didn’t dunk in those scrimmages, a drought that extended into the first months of the season. “It’s not that big of deal for me to dunk,” Griner says. “I’ve really just been focusing more on scoring and getting the bucket. I really haven’t had that mindset to dunk. I focus more on blocking shots.”
Height aside, Griner’s ability to patrol the paint shouldn’t surprise. She’s learned well from her father, a long-time policeman. “If I can’t play ball, I’ve always thought about being a cop.”