It's the next big thing vs. current big thing as Griner faces UConn
Freshman phenom Brittney Griner and Baylor take on UConn in the Final Four
Griner has set the record for most blocks in a tourney (35) and a single game (14)
UConn, winners of 76 straight, has won by an average of 47 points in the tourney
SAN ANTONIO -- You can see size on film but you can't feel it, and as much as Georgetown coach Terri Williams-Flournoy watched tape on Baylor's Brittney Griner prior to their NCAA tournament game on March 22, it was only when Griner lined up to take the opening tip that Williams-Flournoy realized what she was facing. "I looked at her next to my center," said Williams-Flournoy, "and thought to myself, 'Wow, she's really, really big'."
Griner is a 6-foot-8 freshman with a 7-4 wingspan and infinite possibilities. She played just 27 minutes against Georgetown because of foul trouble but it was enough. Griner set a single-game NCAA tournament record with 14 blocked shots and reconstructed several more in a 49-33 win. "Brittney Griner alters your thinking and sometimes makes you completely change your style of play," said Baylor coach Kim Mulkey.
The boxer Mike Tyson famously once said everyone has a plan til they get punched in the mouth, and no player in women's basketball has altered more plans this season than Griner. Her NCAA-record 218 blocked shots is more than all UConn players combined, and she set another record with 35 blocks in the NCAA tournament, averaging 8.8 per game. Just 19, Griner has broken past the niche of women's basketball and into the popular sports marketplace, much in part to her blocks and dunks going viral on the web, as well as the now-infamous right cross she flung into the face of Texas Tech's Jordan Barncastle. It sets up the subtext of tonight's semifinal (9:30 p.m., ET) at the Alomodome between UConn and Baylor: How will the game's next big thing will fare against its current big thing?
"Obviously there's no one like her in the game today," said UConn coach Geno Auriemma. "I think she's on the tip of everyone's tongue when it comes to conversations about what is one of the most exciting things that's happening in the game of women's basketball. I don't think there's been anyone that young that's been able to impact games as much as she's had the ability to do, especially in the NCAA tournament. If she's this good now, it's scary how good she'll be when she gets a little more experience and a little more mature."
The person who immediately has to deal with Griner is Tina Charles, the splendid UConn center who was named The Associated Press player of the year Saturday and deservedly so. The 6-4 senior has averaged 18.3 points, 9.4 rebounds and is shooting 63 percent from the field. Charles became the UConn's alltime leader in points (2,316 points) and rebounds (1,343) this season, all the more remarkable because she spent the early part of her college career in Auriemma's doghouse for what her perceived to be her underachieving. "Tina Charles is the best center there is and I just feel this will be a learning experience," Griner said.
Can Griner alone beat UConn? No. But she has the opportunity to be the first player in some time to impact what they do because of her length and shot-blocking abilities. Though Georgetown shot miserably in its loss, Williams-Flournoy thought that there was still a bit of intimidation even when Griner was on the bench. Baylor is a callow team (they have five freshman and one senior) that has played seasoned basketball in the tournament. "Up until this point our freshman have not played like freshman," said Baylor assistant coach Leon Barmore, who coached Louisiana Tech to five national titles games and the 1988 championship. "This is the biggest stage the freshman have been on but Tennessee and Duke was big stages, too. They may come out and play loose but UConn is so good at all positions that it will take an outstanding game. Is it there for us at this age? I don't know. We have four freshmen in our first seven. But no matter what happens, we've set ourselves up to be real good the next couple of years."
Baylor's chance for an upset -- and it is a remote chance -- is to control tempo, keep Griner away from foul trouble, and try to figure out a way to win an ugly, low-scoring game. Baylor is holding opponents to 32.1 percent shooting during the tournament and ranks first nationally in blocks per game (7.6) and trails only UConn in field goal percentage defense (32.9).
Mulkey knows Baylor cannot compete with UConn offensively. The Huskies have won 76 consecutive games, including its first four games of the tournament by an average of 47 points. Junior forward Maya Moore has averaged 21.8 points in the tournament while playing an average of 21 minutes. What often gets lost, though, is how good UConn is defensively. The Huskies are limiting teams to an average of 40.2 points during the tournament and have allowed 46.1 points over its 37 games, the best in the nation. UConn also leads the nation in opponent field goal percentage (.299). "Nobody expects us to win this game," said Mulkey. "We're going to go in and we're going to fight and we're going to do the best we can. But you can't go into a game with a defeatist attitude."
Ohio State All-America junior center Jantel Lavender told SI.com Saturday that she thought UConn would aggressively double team Griner to force her in foul trouble. Getting under Griner's skin is something Georgetown players discussed, especially following the Barncastle incident. Griner was ejected from the Texas Tech game and suspended by both the NCAA (for one game) and Baylor (for one game). "She is 6-8 and you need her out of the way," said Georgetown junior guard Monica McNutt. "We knew that she was a hothead based on the play. Unfortunately, it was a sad mistake and hopefully she has learned from it. We sent one of our post players right at her and she picked up two quick fouls and had her sitting in the first half. We knew that she wasn't necessary as composed as she may need to be."
Griner and her teammates say that's not the case anymore. "I think that it [the punch] helped all of us grow, especially Brittney," said Baylor junior guard Melissa Jones. "I think everyone in our lives at some point let our emotions just get the best of us. It was extremely out of character for that to happen."
Barmore called Griner "one of the most lovable kids I've been around" and Mulkey said she has a sweetness about her. "She's a hugger," said Mulkey, who at 5-4 is 16 inches shorter than her star center. "As athletes, sometimes we do the high fives and we do handshakes and we do the chest-bumping, but when you greet her and she knows you, Brittney just has a smile on her face and she wraps these long arms all around you."
Griner is the second tallest player in women's Final Four history behind Anne Donovan, the 6-10 Hall of Famer who led Old Dominion to a title in 1983. She grew up in Houston, about 180 miles south of Baylor's campus in Waco, and has handled the media attention impressively. Griner spoke after games this season but Baylor's media relations department held back on midweek interviews and phone interviews. She drew the interest of Inside Edition after the punch (the request was declined) and was profiled by Sports Illustrated, ESPN and the CBS Early Show. Asked Saturday for her favorite class this semester, Greiner said it was Theater Appreciation. Is acting in her future? "Well, I have no problem talking in front of a lot of people," she said, smiling.
She can speak loudly tonight with a big performance against UConn in her first Final Four, a destination you get the feeling Baylor will be visiting more than once during her tenure.
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