Perfection: Baylor completes its coronation, Griner stakes her claim
DENVER -- The game has never seen anything like her. The 88-inch wingspan, hands as soft as a lullaby, and an above-the-rim athleticism that seems more video game than reality.
Baylor junior center Brittney Griner put her stamp on women's basketball long before this year's Final Four, but on this snowy Denver night, she lifted her program to heights no women's basketball team had gone before.
Baylor is now the first college basketball team in NCAA history, male or female, to finish a season 40-0 after a punishing 80-61 win over Notre Dame. When Griner came out of the game with 1:04 remaining -- she finished with 26 points, 13 rebounds and five blocks in 39 minutes -- she swallowed coach Kim Mulkey with a 30-second hug.
"That child," Mulkey said, "comes to work every day."
That child brought her hard hat to the Pepsi Center on Tuesday night. She altered countless shots and hit 11 of 16 herself, including eight of nine in the second half. In the biggest game of her career, she put her program on her back and took ownership of history.
"She's one of a kind," said Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw, through tears at the postgame news conference. "I think she's like a guy playing with women. It's just there's so many things that she can do that I've not seen a lot of women -- well, there's been some guards that had some skill like that -- but as a post player she's the best I've ever seen."
Baylor joins Texas (1986), UConn (1995, 2002, '09, '10) and Tennessee (1998) as the fourth NCAA women's basketball program to produce an undefeated season and the seventh undefeated national champion. Louisiana Tech (1981), Delta State (1975) and Immaculata (1973) also accomplished the feat in the AIAW era. Mulkey also joins a vaulted list: She is one of just five coaches to win multiple national championships.
Griner's legacy as a transcendent player was assured before the title game, but she can now stake her claim as the game's greatest. She has led Baylor to a 101-13 record during her three seasons in Waco and is the first Division I player to record more than 2,000 points (she has 2,425) and 500 blocks (599). Griner has scored in double figures in 110 of 112 games and blocked at least one shot in 109 of them, including her last 50.
When SI.com asked Griner on Monday if her career would feel incomplete without a title, she didn't soft sell.
"Definitely," she said. "I'd feel I let down Baylor. I said when I got here that we were going to win a national championship, and if we didn't get that, I'd feel like I'd let everybody down."
The game was tight in the first half. Baylor jumped to a 29-15 lead by pounding Notre Dame inside with Griner and junior forward Destiny Williams (12 points). But the Irish found success late in the half by pulling Griner high in the post and sending cutters to the basket for backdoor layups, part of its Princeton offense. The Irish trailed just 34-28 at halftime, and it looked as if the second half would be taut.
But the game plan was "destroyed," as McGraw put it, when star forward Devereaux Peters was called for her fourth foul with 15:10 left in the game on a vicious moving screen that crushed Baylor sophomore point guard Odyssey Sims.
At that moment, Notre Dame trailed 42-39. Peters was the key defender behind Griner -- Notre Dame also fronted her with guards -- and after she left the game, Griner started posting down low harder and stronger.
"If Brittney didn't score a point, she would have lived up to the billing because she's so dominant on the defensive end of the floor," Mulkey said. "It's sad in athletics when people feel you have to validate your talent by winning a championship. But that's society, and that's the world we live in. Brittney Griner, whether she won today or not, will go down in the history of the women's game if not the greatest post player, one of the greatest. But I'm so glad that she has that ring now."
That was the unaccomplished goal for a remarkable senior class at Notre Dame that now exits South Bend. Fifth-year-senior forward Peters, fifth-year guard Brittany Mallory and seniors Fraderica Miller and Natalie Novosel produced 143 wins over the past five years, the most for any class over a five-year stretch. They were aided by the brilliant junior point guard Skylar Diggins, who finished with a team-high 20 points and no turnovers. McGraw, who entered the press room crying, was asked if she was overly emotional because of the loss of such a tight and accomplished group.
"I was hoping nobody would ask that question," she said. "The waterworks will begin now. It's such a tough way for their career to end."
How Baylor ended its season a year ago -- a bitter loss to Texas A&M in the regional final in Dallas -- was its driving force for this season. At the Lady Bears' first practice this year, Mulkey walked into the locker room and told the team that the motto of the season would be unfinished business. She reemphasized that by handing out green bracelets with the words UNFINISHED BUSINESS written on them to her coaches, players and managers. Mulkey demanded everyone wear the bracelets whenever they were at practice.
"If you didn't have it practice, it was trouble," said junior guard Jordan Madden, who was one of three Baylor players, including Griner and Sims, who had not won a state title in high school. "One time early in the year we were rushing to get to practice and a couple of us did not have the bracelet on. Coach was like, 'Oh, I see some of you are not wearing your bracelet.' We ran like 12 suicide sprints that day, and after that day, everybody had double bracelets and even backups."
Mulkey is a famously intense coach, but her daughter, Makenzie Robertson, a sophomore on this team, said her mother receded some of her intensity this season because of the happy-go-lucky makeup of the team. She coached this week
Robertson said her mother went through her usual checklist for the keys to the game but did add one twist for the final. "She told us we're not going to get this moment back so we'd better give it all we have," Robertson said.
The crowd of 19,028 was filled with Baylor notables, basketball coach Scott Drew, the country singer Trace Adkins and Heisman winner Robert Griffin III, the Baylor quarterback who threw an "RGIII" T-shirt into the crowd at halftime in a slick bit of self-promotion. Griffin and Baylor president Ken Starr both cut down part of the net.
"Brittany Griner is obviously blessed with great athletic gifts, but as coach Mulkey said, she works extraordinary hard," Starr said. "She's just a great example for frankly all of us. I think the country is beginning to understand that while she is very serious about this great sport of basketball, she is having a lot of fun."
She is fun. Charming, too. During her week in Denver, Griner talked about her passion for longboarding, the joy of buying size-17 sneakers online and comparing her braids against those of RGIII. Sims, the All-America guard who scored 19 points, said Griner is a goofy kid trapped in a big body.
Asked if she planned on celebrating with anything special, Griner said, "I kind of want to go bungee jumping, but I don't know how coach is going to feel about that. So I might just buy me another longboard."
That's probably wise, given that Mulkey gets Griner for one more year. The coach reiterated once again late Tuesday night that Griner is not leaving college early for WNBA or European riches. (To play in the WNBA, a player must turn 22 during the year they are drafted; Griner turns 22 in October).
"She's not going anywhere," Mulkey said. "I don't know what part of that y'all don't understand. She wants to get her degree. She said it. I've said it. I don't know what else we can say. This kid is, she's a jewel. She enjoys Baylor. Come see her. Watch her longboard across campus, paint her body at a football game. Watch her do cartwheels and roll down the halls. She's a kid. She enjoys her college life. She knows she's going to make money someday. She's not in a hurry to go into that crude, rude, crazy real world. She likes her little comfort there in Waco, Texas."
And now that little comfort comes with a big title: NCAA champion.