Bears ready for Griner's last home gome

March 26, 2013 - 2:40pm
Brittney Griner dunks between two Florida defenders during the second round of the 2012 NCAA tournament. (Photo by Robert Rogers/Baylor athletics)

Brittney Griner dunks between two Florida defenders during the second round of the 2012 NCAA tournament. (Photo by Robert Rogers/Baylor athletics)

WACO, Tex. – It’s been unseasonably cold for the last few days in central Texas. Shivering students here on the Baylor campus jammed their hands into the pockets of seldom-used parkas Sunday as they hurried toward the Ferrell Center past tulips already in bloom and struggling to survive the freezing temperatures.  Winds gusting up to 25 miles per hour added to the chill, and even inside the warmth of the confines of the arena, gigantic rooftop fans picked up the wind and amplified it as it passed through the massive pipes in the backstage areas, pouring out a roar fit for the soundtrack of a Jack London novel.

But there has been nothing even remotely cold about the Bears’ performance on the court as they launched their campaign for an NCAA championship repeat with an 82-40 barbeque of the visiting Prairie View Panthers in the opening round on Sunday. And as usual, Baylor’s superstar Brittney Griner was red-hot, pouring in a game-high 33 points – including an authoritative dunk midway through the second half.

The jam, the 15th of Griner’s illustrious college career, brought her tally equal to that of all other women known to have dunked in college combined. And the move, which came a little more than four minutes into the second half, brought the crowd of 9,540, who had begun the game with great enthusiasm but by that point had been lulled into near-somnolence by the lopsided first-round affair between the defending national champions and the bottom-most team in the tournament, to their feet in raucous appreciation. As did Griner’s decisive swat, one of her six on the night, barely a minute later.

Griner added 10 boards to her total to make it a double-double, the 61st of her career, which tied Sophia Young for the school record in that category.

"The dunk changed the energy of the game," said Baylor head coach Kim Mulkey after the game. “I thought our defense was better in the second half,” said Mulkey. “I thought it was much better after Brittney dunked it. I just thought it energized the whole arena. “

Indeed, even the opponents were mesmerized. “It was a surprise for us that she came out and dunked on us,” said Prairie View guard Jeanette Jackson. “That is what we did not want to have happen, but it was amazing. We got star struck.”

It was amazing, and for several reasons. For one, though the jam came off a fast break with Griner wide open under the hoop, Griner was not on the run, which most female athletes who have executed the feat require. Instead, she caught the ball flat-footed, as she stood on one side of the basket, then pivoted beneath the hoop to throw it down from the opposite side.

It might not have been as sweet as Griner’s monster two-handed jam in last year’s Elite Eight, a dunk that had plenty of hang time, but the move left the backboard shuddering long after the game had moved to the opposite end of the court.

Of course, it wasn’t just Griner who was hot on Sunday. After a somewhat slow start, attributable in part to the nearly two-week layoff since Baylor’s last game, the gears began to mesh.  Junior point guard Odyssey Sims also turned in a double-double, adding 12 points to her 10 assists and icing the cake with five steals, and her game Sunday moved her into the No. 1 position in Division I in assist-to-turnover ratio, a part of the game in which she has learned to take a great deal of pride.

And the heat didn’t stop there. It was Griner, imploring the crowd for more noise when shortly after the dunk, Brooklyn Pope grabbed a steal and took it coast to coast for the layup. Destiny Williams came off the bench for a near double of nine points and 10 rebounds. And the role players did their part until the garbage minutes when, with the benches cleared, things got just a bit sloppy. ("Seventh-grade basketball," was how Kim Mulkey described it at the following days shoot-around, exhorting her players to raise their level yet another notch.)

Mackenzie Robertson said she and her teammates are every bit as hungry for a repeat as they were to win the championship last season. Last year’s motto was “Unfinished Business”; this year it has changed to “Back to Business.” The locker room feels a bit more relaxed, but Williams said the focus is still there and just as intense. “This year we lost a game, so we know we can slip. Last year we didn’t.”

The Bears are walking the tightrope between keeping that focus on the game immediately in front of them and energizing themselves to go the distance. After watching film Monday, Baylor opened its practice backed up my a musical playlist featuring all Louisiana and New Orleans lyrics. While mostly Country-Western in genre, the hits included an up-tempo Zydeco rendition of “Don’t Mess with my Toot Toot,” to which the team performed its stretches in an ersatz line dance.

Expect things to be hotter than ever inside Ferrell Center on Tuesday night, when Griner takes to the floor for her final home game at Baylor. As of Monday afternoon, fewer than 1,000 seats remained unsold in the arena which holds a capacity 10,284 for basketball, but even that turnout, to which many teams would aspire, did not satisfy Bayor head coach Kim Mulkey who is already hot – under the collar, that is – because the arena hasn’t yet sold out for Griner’s last game at Ferrell.

“Let me say this,” said Mulkey, “this building should be sold out. I don’t care that it’s an 8:30 game; I don’t care if it’s a school night. Some people in the community will not be able to go to Oklahoma City; they will not be able to go if we continue on. This could be our national championship. This could be Brittney Griner’s last game. It for sure is going to be her last game in this building. And I can’t imagine sitting at home watching that on television and not coming out here and paying $15 or $25 to watch that kid play. And it disappoints me to think  we even have tickets left to be sold. And people want to say, ‘Well, it’s a school night.’ Well, leave at halftime.”

“And I do know this, we’re going to have a special guest in the house tomorrow,” Mulkey teased her public. “People need to come see who it is. It’s going to be more than Florida State and Baylor.”

Griner said she expects her last night on the home floor where she has witnessed only  two defeats in her four-year career to be an emotional moment.

“It will be more emotional than Senior Night, because I knew then that I had more games there. I love playing here and I’m going to miss it.”

Then she added, “I just hope it’s not my last game.”

As for Florida State, no one will admit to any sense of intimidation, but head coach Sue Semrau knows her crew will have their work cut out for them – certainly with Griner, who has five inches on the ‘Noles’ tallest player, 6-3 forward Natasha Howard – but also with the rest of the Bears.

“They have great pressure,” said Semrau Monday. "It starts with Odyssey [Sims] and their wings. We used to have a kid back there [in Tallahassee, Fla.] that was 6-6, and it covers a lot of sins. You’ve got kids that drive by and then it’s,  ‘Hey, welcome to the paint!’”

Griner will there tonight to welcome Howard and the rest of the Seminoles to the paint, and expect the greeting to include at least one more dunk. to During the 15 minutes the off-day practice was open to the media, Baylor was working hard at getting the ball quickly down court and into Griner’s hands in the low post against the kind of trapping, pressure defense the Seminoles used to such good effect in Sunday’s win over Princeton. “If they’re going to pressure you, make 'em pay,” Mulkey exhorted her players.

Griner says the dunk is not her favorite part of the game and that she personally doesn’t get any particular adrenaline rush out of a stuff. “I don’t really think about the number,” she said Monday of her record 15th jam. “If it wasn’t for my teammates, I would probably only have five. I just go out there and play.”

But as her career at Baylor draws to a close, Griner jams it home anyway,  and with increasing frequency. Her teammates say, she does it in part to make a statement that Baylor is back and is ready to dominate and in part because they keep urging her to throw down. And, says Williams, Griner also does it for the fans, who obviously still love it and have grown to love the unassuming 6-8 star as well.