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Griner shines bright under spotlight of biggest game in her career

DENVER -- Brittney Griner flipped in a hook shot -- smooth as cream and as devastating as a dagger -- and heard the whistle confirm the foul. She pumped her fist hard and yelled in celebration.

Notre Dame didn't know it at the time, but that was it. Ballgame. Season. Title dream. See ya.

"That hook shot just sparked it," Griner said. "That was my dunk."

It was Griner's signature moment in her biggest game. With more than nine minutes to play, Baylor rode Griner's hook shot, her emotion and her momentum to a 17-2 run, blowing the game open and writing the foregone conclusion in permanent ink: Baylor -- 2012 national champions.

DEITSCH: Baylor is perfect; is Griner greatest?

In the brightest spotlight, Griner showed off her game-changing, history-making, breathtaking game.

It's a game that intimidates, threatens and puzzles people. Even those who should know better don't know what to do with it, how to explain it. Even a veteran coach like Notre Dame's Muffet McGraw.

"I think she's one of a kind," McGraw said. "I think she's like a guy playing with women."

McGraw didn't mean to be derogatory. But she should have known better; she's been around the game for 30 years and witnessed the mean-spirited debate and ugly backlash against every strong female player who breaks the mold -- and none has ever been more vilified than Griner. Comparing Griner to "a guy" -- no matter how well intentioned -- only fuels the nastiness.

And of course her quote was immediately blown up and taken out of context on highlights and on Twitter.

McGraw released a statement within the hour.

"I am disappointed that ESPN would so clearly take my comment about Brittney out of context. I would hope that it was clear to those in attendance at Tuesday's press conference that my comments were meant to be complimentary, and in reference to her style of play and her dominance in our game, nothing more. Any attempt by others to read anything more into that comment is wrong, malicious and take away from what was a well-played national championship game. I have held, and continue to hold Brittney and the Baylor women's basketball program in the highest regard, and I congratulate them on winning the title this evening."

At least the target of her comment didn't seem offended. At least not very much. McGraw's original quote was repeated to Griner at the Baylor postgame news conference. Her teammates, Destiny Williams and Odyssey Sims, looked at each other in surprise, and Griner was asked how she felt about it. She also seemed taken aback, momentarily, then recovered.

"Definitely, I take it as a compliment," she said. "It's a compliment."

Another "guy" question. Why would championship night be any different from every other night of her career?

Ever since Griner arrived at Baylor in the fall of 2009, she's been subjected to cruel, often disgusting, taunts -- in the stands, in social media and even in print. The day before the championship game, coach Kim Mulkey gave an impassioned defense of her center.

"This is someone's child," she said Monday. "This is a human being, people. She didn't wake up and say, 'God, make me look like this, make me be 6-8, make me have the ability to dunk. This child is as precious as they come when it comes to being a good person, a sweet kid, coachable.

"But the stuff she's had to read about, the stuff she's had to hear, the stuff people say about her, the stuff people write about her, it's gotta stop."

It won't stop, not in the day and age we live in. Griner is remarkably well adjusted, a sweet, funny person who seems quite happy about her size -- "I like being different, I like being tall" -- and much more at ease in the spotlight now as a junior than she was as a freshman. This weekend she talked about growing eight inches in high school, her pants growing too short seemingly overnight, walking downstairs in the mornings and telling her parents, "Dang, I think I grew last night." She long boards around campus and dreams of bungee jumping and snowboarding. She laughs when Williams calls her "a kid," -- saying to her teammate, "like you're 30 years old or something."

As Mulkey said, no young girl is going to dream of being 6-foot-8 and the target of hatred and humiliation. But if you end up being 6-8, you might as well do something with it.

What Griner did with her physical gifts this year was spectacular, leading her team to an undefeated season and a title. She has gotten stronger, more self-assured, more multifaceted in her game.

After a statistically unremarkable semifinal game against Stanford, she stepped up, apparently unaffected by the pressure of the moment. Her line Tuesday night: 26 points, 13 rebounds, five blocks, 4-of-6 from the free throw line, just two turnovers and one foul.

"If Brittney didn't score a point she would have lived up to the billing, because she's so dominant on the defensive end," Mulkey said.

Griner considers the paint her domain -- "that's my lane, my paint," she says. But she was dominant down low on the offensive end as well. Baylor outscored Notre Dame 40-22 in the paint. Teammate Brooklyn Pope said that while Stanford had denied Griner the ball, Notre Dame gave her plenty of opportunity to get her hands on the ball.

"So why not get it to her?" Pope asked.

There's a lot of talk about Griner as a game-changer. And she is, in the most specific sense: she changes every game that she's in. But she's not a game-changer in the big picture: she won't forever change the game of women's basketball because there aren't many 6-8 female players -- with her kind of skills and footwork -- coming along.

Griner hasn't revolutionized the game of women's basketball forever. But she revolutionized this season. And Tuesday night's title game.

"When I hit that little hook, it just got me energized," she said. "I was kind of shocked it went in, but it definitely got me going. Then I got that 'and-one' and I just kind of lost it for a moment and celebrated."

"I knew I had to take over," she said.

She took over, like she has so often in her career.

And if you don't know how to describe her game, well, that's your problem. Just call her a national champion.

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