SOUTH BEND – Last week, when the Baylor women’s basketball team played at Notre Dame, I got my first live look at Brittney Griner.
It was a revelation.
The Griner you see on TV appears as a 6-foot, 8-inch stick figure with a game that once seemed equally one-dimensional.
The Griner in front of my baseline seat at Purcell Pavilion stood on sturdy legs – albeit wrapped because of nagging shin splints – and took apart the Irish in so many ways that, as Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw suggested, it almost was unfair.
Added to the skills that produced 24 points, 14 rebounds and three blocks were a clear sense of how best to use them and the patience to command a game by letting it come to her as No. 3 Baylor inexorably pulled away for a 73-61 win over the No. 5 Irish.
Asked how long it had taken to develop that patience, Griner answered with a small, wry smile.
“I just let that come to me as well,” she said. “About last year, I started being more patient. If I didn’t hit a shot or couldn’t get my hands on the ball, just keep moving because I am drawing two people to me, so whatever I can do, I’m going to do.
“I posted up strong when I had to (and) came up high to get out of the post (so) they couldn’t double team me too much.”
When Griner got the ball in the low post and had two or three Irish defenders for company, she kicked it out – sometimes with a deft touch pass - rather than force it up.
When the 208-pound Griner tired of fighting for space down low, she popped out to the foul line, taking two defenders with her and opening a lot of room for teammates near the basket. At one point, she turned and drove the lane, drawing a charge but pleasing her coach, Kim Mulkey.
“I want her to do more of that,” Mulkey said. “I bet if you take one charge, you won’t be taking many more.”
The back-to-back shots Griner hit late in the first half to put her team ahead 29-25 were both short jumpers. She got another basket on a 12-foot jumper by filling the lane on a break. Late in the game, she backed in a defender with one step, then turned to her right for a foul-line jumper.
Only two of her 10 baskets were layups. Mulkey was ready to let Griner shoot threes late in the game if the Bears offense had bogged down.
“When Griner started making the free-throw jumper. . . that was what we wanted her to take,” McGraw said. “If she is going to make that, you can’t guard her.”
Griner has a soft touch, as evidenced by a flawless night at the foul line (4-for-4) at Notre Dame and 75 percent free throw shooting for the season. She runs the floor surprisingly well and had the stamina to be as big a force as ever at the end of a 37-minute night, with five points, two rebounds and a block in the final 2 minutes, 20 seconds.
For all that, Griner can’t do it alone against a good opponent. That was evident when All-America point guard Odyssey Sims left the Stanford game after four minutes with a hamstring injury.
Griner had 22 points and six rebounds, but Stanford ended Baylor’s 42-game win streak 71-69.
Baylor (7-1), which plays Oral Roberts Wednesday night, likely has only one more serious regular-season test, Feb. 18 at No. 2 Connecticut.
But it may not always be easy for Baylor, even with five starters back from last year’s NCAA champion team.
“You struggle with a little complacency,” McGraw said. “It’s like the regular-season doesn’t mean that much because you know where you will be at the end.”
McGraw and the rest of the nation’s coaches can look forward to that, knowing this is the end for Griner as a college player. I’ll be watching her on TV – the next chance is Dec. 18 against No. 13 Tennessee – and knowing the small screen doesn’t do justice to the full dimensions of her presence.
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