Griner does it all in home finale

March 28, 2013 - 2:58pm
Brittney Griner (No. 42) bids farewell to the crowd of nearly 10,000 who turned out to watch her play her final game of basketball at Baylor's Ferrell Center on Tuesday, Mar. 27, 2013, in Waco, Tex. (Photo by Lee Michaelson)

Brittney Griner (No. 42) bids farewell to the crowd of nearly 10,000 who turned out to watch her play her final game of basketball at Baylor's Ferrell Center on Tuesday, Mar. 27, 2013, in Waco, Tex. (Photo by Lee Michaelson)

No. 1 Baylor 85, No. 8 Florida State 47

WACO, Tex. -- It’s hard to imagine what more anyone could have asked of Brittney Griner than what she poured out in front of a crowd of 9,652 mostly Baylor fans, including former president George W. Bush, on Tuesday night in her final home game.

Baylor wins, 85-47, to advance to its fifth-straight Sweet 16

The headlines for the game are obvious, and by now, generally known. However, some of the implications of this epic night might not have been quite as clear. Baylor won, of course, and handily (85-47), to move on to the Sweet 16 for the fifth year in a row.

Lost behind that particular caption is the quality of the team that took the thumping. While the NCAA Selection Committee saw this as a 1-seed-versus-8-seed match-up, the reality is that Florida State was one of several teams in this year’s tournament field that was grossly under-seeded, presumably to make the brackets work while taking at least a stab at complying with the geographic principles and rules governing where teams from the same conference can and cannot be placed.

The case came be made that Florida State, based on its record (22-9 overall, 12-8 in conference play heading into the tournament), its RPI (19) and its strength of schedule (20), deserved a five-seed, and certainly no worse than a six.  But they went where the Committee sent them, and played their hearts out – nobody could have asked much more in terms of effort out of Florida State on Tuesday night either – and it’s a bit of a shame that the ‘Noles' five graduating seniors got to see their careers end on such a resounding down note.

FSU is not the basketball lightweight that Baylor made them look like on this night. They’ve got talent – Alexa Deluzio, Leonor Rodriguez and Natasha Howard all earned All-ACC first-team selections and Chastity Clayton was the league’s Sixth Player of the Year. They’ve played first-class teams and beaten several of them, including Miami, Vanderbilt, North Carolina and Maryland. And they know how to score – the Seminoles ranked first in the ACC and seventh in the nation in scoring offense at 76.2 points per game; ranked second in the ACC and fourth in the country (behind only Baylor, UConn and Maryland) in field-goal percentage; and are the only team in Division I basketball this season who had five players who average double figures.

But on Tuesday, especially in the first six minutes, during which the ‘Noles spotted their hosts a 15-2 lead, it looked like Florida State couldn’t find its way to the basket with a map or GPS navigation. The Seminoles shot just eight-of-37, or 21.6 percent, from the field in the first half on Tuesday, improving only slightly in the second half to finish at 26.1 percent (18-of-69) on the night. And while Sue Semrau allowed that her team had gotten open looks they hadn’t knocked down, there weren’t a whole lot of them from where I was sitting.

So it says a lot – a whole lot – about the quality of Baylor’s defense that the Bears were able to hold a team of FSU’s caliber to under 50 points and just 26-percent field-goal shooting.

“Our defense – guys, our defense was special,” Baylor head coach Kim Mulkey told reporters afterward. “Florida State scores a lot of points. If you look at their stats, they’re averaging 76 points per game. And I challenged our girls: ‘Your defense needs to be better than their offense.’ I know that sounds simple, but you really need to say, ‘You know what? We’re not letting you score 76 points.’ And I just thought the defense the entire game was special.”

That’s something that should be sending just as many chills down the spines of the teams waiting up the line as the prospect of a Brittney Griner throw-down.

Dunks – Three of them

Griner Dunk Baylor's Brittney Griner (No. 42) elevates for one of her unprecedented three dunks in Tuesday's second-round NCAA Tournament win over Florida State. She has now thrown down more dunks than all other women known to have dunked in college combined. (Photo by Lee Michaelson)

Griner did not disappoint on Tuesday – anybody, including the Baylor beat radio announcer who challenged her to dunk three times in her final home game. Griner obliged the request, even tweeting at halftime that she needed two more. That wasn’t a boast or a show of arrogance, as Griner explained after the game:

“Before our game, Rick, the radio guy, told me to get three dunks, and it’s crazy because I got three dunks. I need him to tell me that before every game.”

So Griner got three, and she could have had five, and possibly six, had a couple of apparent attempts not been broken up by Seminole fouls and a three-quarter-court lob from Brooklyn Pope not been badly overthrown.

“I was stronger than I thought and I overthrew it,” Pope confessed afterward. “BG knew I wanted to pass it, but by the time I looked down and dribbled and looked up and threw it, she was further down than I thought.”

Note to Pope: That’s why you’re not supposed to look down when you dribble. But then again, Pope, who was otherwise outstanding in her final appearance at Ferrell Center, is a power forward, not a point guard, and she put up 12 points and pulled down six rebounds.

And three dunks were enough anyway. More than any other female player has recorded in an NCAA Tournament game, the three dunks broke records by bring her career total to 18 (more than all other women who have dunked in college combined) and her NCAA Tournament career total to six, another first.

Points – 33 of them

Griner Jumper Unlike many players of her size, Griner is not confined to the low block; her jumper is good from mid-range. (Photo by Lee Michaelson)

Griner’s 33 points on Tuesday night marked the 10th time this season and the 20th in her career that she has posted more than 30 in a single game. She has now scored in double-figures in 115 straight games and in 145 of the 147 games she has played since arriving at Baylor.  Already in the No. 2 spot, she needs just four more double-digit-scoring games to surpass UConn great Maya Moore for the most in NCAA history. She also ranks second in the NCAA record books in career scoring (3,269 points), but will need 30 or more points per game over the next four outings (assuming the Bears go the distance, which looked like a pretty safe bet Tuesday night) to surpass the 3,393 points Jackie Stiles put on the scoreboard while at Southwest Missouri State between 1988 and 2001 for the NCAA’s all-time career-scoring record.

But what gets lost behind all those scoring and dunking headlines is that Griner did it without becoming a black hole for the basketball. Certainly, she puts up more shots than any of her teammates – what coach would stand for it if a player with Griner’s gifts and advantages did not?  But she’s not a volume-shooter; she’s extremely efficient.  On Tuesday, she knocked down 15 of her 22 attempts from the field (or 68.2 percent).

And that’s not just because she stays glued to the block letting her prodigious height do all the work for her. Sure, she can do that, but she can also operate in the high post, and while she might not be a serious three-point threat (yet), her jumper is good pretty much anywhere from 10-15 feet out. Sure she can dunk, but she also owns a sweet little hook shot, and her athleticism gives her the ability to create a shot as she maneuvers through traffic.

The other thing that the headlines don’t tell you is what a team player this kid is. People will want to talk about Griner’s three dunks or her four swats – and, yes, they were exciting, bringing the arena to its feet in roaring appreciation. But you hear a lot less about Griner’s four assists on the night. And that doesn’t count the number of times – and there were many, especially in the game’s early minutes – when Griner turned down opportunities to score, kicking the ball back out and seeking to get her teammates involved.

“I thought there were times in the second half, early in the second half, where Brittney could have gone to the rim and scored it again, and she was trying to distribute the ball and really had a few turnovers in that span, not just her but a few of the other players in that span,” observed Mulkey.

“But Brittney Griner is one of the most unselfish superstars you will ever see. She just wants to win and she wants to do good. If dunks happen, great. If blocked shots happen, great. If she scores 10 and everybody else scores 20 and we win, it’s fine with Brittney. She can make everybody around her better,” Mulkey continued. “She has improved tremendously from her freshman year. She used to turn it over the minute she was trapped, she couldn’t see the floor, she didn’t have great ball reversal. And now, she’s so comfortable that she’s sees double and triple teams, and she’ll find you. She'll find you.”

The results of that unselfishness: Not just Griner, but four of the five Baylor starters finished in double figures, with the fifth, guard Jordan Madden, just missing with eight points.

Beyond that, Phoenix Mercury head coach Corey Gaines will have to be pleased when he watches the tapes of this game to know that he’s getting a center who can handle the basketball. No, you wouldn’t want to make Griner your point guard. But there have been centers – really good, Hall-of-Fame centers – in the game who made you wince whenever you’d see them put the ball of the floor. Griner’s dribble might be a bit high for a fundamentals purist (but then again, so is she). She can turn the ball over, as she did three times Tuesday night, but some of that is a function of the double-teaming she routinely has to deal with. But Griner does have the ability to dribble her way out of trouble, and then knows when it’s time to pass the ball off to one of the guards, and that skill is yet another valuable arrow in an already jam-packed quiver of talents.

Rebounds – 22 of them

Griner Rebound Griner skies for one of her 22 boards in Tuesday night's game, putting to rest any doubts about her willingness or ability to rebound the ball effectively. (Photo by Lee Michaelson)

I’ve always been reluctant to join the bandwagon of adulation surrounding Griner or any other star.  All players – indeed, all of us, period – have our strengths and our weaknesses, and we do our readers a disservice when we ignore either.

To me, one of those deficits, in Griner’s case, has been her rebounding. It’s not that she doesn’t rebound well – there are a lot of teams who would be overjoyed to have the nine boards per game Griner was averaging coming into the tournament. And it’s not that Baylor needed her to do a whole lot more on the boards, what with Pope (5.7 rbg) and Destiny Williams (6.7 rbg) to take up the slack.

It’s just that it seemed like an area of under-achievement: How can you be 6-8 in the women’s game and not be averaging a double-double?

Well, Griner put that question to rest on Tuesday. She got her double-double -- the 62nd of her career, moving her past former Baylor star Sophia Young for No. 1 in the Lady Bears’ record books and No. 2 on the Big 12 leaderboard, and she got it with nearly two minutes still on the clock in the opening half.  She finished the first half with 16 points and 12 boards, and she finished the game with 33 and 22 rebounds, becoming just the second player in school history to record 30 or more points and more than 20 rebounds in a single game. (Danielle Crockrom registered 30 points and 23 boards against USC on Dec. 20, 2000.)

Griner nearly single-handedly out-rebounded the entire FSU team, who finished with a collective 25 boards, and they’re not known as a terrible rebounding team.  And while she’ll never surpass Courtney Paris in the collegiate rebounding record books, if Griner can continue to rebound at anywhere close to the pace she displayed on Tuesday, she’s going to be an even bigger threat than previously anticipated once she hits the pros.

Blocks – Four of them

Griner Block Baylor's Brittney Griner (No. 42) denies an attempt by Florida State's Leonor Rodriguez (No. 10) with one of her four blocks of the night. (Photo by Lee Michaelson)

We’ve already talked about the effectiveness of the Baylor defense in general, but on Tuesday night, Griner not only swatted away four ‘Noles’ attempts with four monstrous blocks, she had to have easily deflected or altered twice that many. She already owns the NCAA Division I career blocks record for any player – male or female – but also keeps stretching that record which now tallies 746. On Tuesday, she came within a gnat’s eyelash of being called for goal tending, and no one seems to know whether that has ever happened in a woman’s game. You can look forward to seeing even more of Griner’s famed swats as Baylor progresses through the tournament, given that she has recorded at least one block in her last 85 straight games and in 143 of her 147 career games.

There will never be another Brittney Griner

Griner-Mulkey Hug
Griner sweeps up her coach in a giant embrace as she leaves the Baylor home court at Ferrell Center for the final time of her college career. (Photo by Lee Michaelson)

One more thing that goes beyond both the headlines and the numbers: When Griner finally carried her impressive stat line off the Ferrell Center floor for the final time after 34 minutes of some of the best play I’ve been privileged to witness in college basketball, she made her exit with a combination of joy and class that had to have made even the biggest skeptics love her. Her first act was to wrap up her coach and lift her off her feet in a massive Lady Bear hug in an emotional display of genuine affection.

“I’ve had lots of those from Brittney,” said Mulkey. “You just hope she doesn’t squeeze the air out of you so you don’t pass out. Brittney just has a personality about her where she just enjoys life. She’s a hugger. “

Griner then saluted the crowd who were yet again on their feet in ovation, first with the Baylor bear claw and then with the ASL sign for “I love you.” Then she took a seat at the farthest end of the bench, where she continued to serve as one of the biggest cheerleaders for the subs who had gone in to mop things up, and when the game finally ground to its overdue end (there really should be some kind of mercy rule in basketball), there was only muted celebration by Griner and her fellow teammates until after their vanquished opponents had gone through the ritual handshake line and left the court.

Whisked off for the mandatory TV interviews, Griner wasn’t able to join her teammates for the singing of the alma mater (accompanied by more Bear claws) in front of the Baylor band, but as soon as she had attended to her duties, she led her teammates back onto the floor for one last joyous romp around the Ferrell Center. For half of the cavorting, Griner allowed herself to be carried piggyback by Shanay Washington, who had arrived on campus a year after Griner, only to see her own career ended prematurely by a series of ACL injuries. Washington, now a student assistant, was there on the bench in street clothes, and Griner made sure she was fully included in the festivities, even switching places and hoisting Washington onto her back for another “ride” around the court.

Kim Mulkey said it best after the game, when asked about that gigantic hug:

“You’ll never see the likes of her again. You just won’t. Not here. I don’t think anywhere, ever, will you see another Brittney Griner. You’ll see great players and you’ll see All-Americans, but I’m not sure we’ll ever see it in my lifetime.”

Post-Game Celebration
Griner's expression is a study in joy as she races injured teammate Shannay Washington around the court piggyback after the Baylor victory. (Photo by Lee Michaelson)