MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Baylor coach Kim Mulkey has noticed a change in Brittney Griner’s play since her suspension for punching a Texas Tech player in the face.
The 6-foot-8 freshman has been more timid and careful on the floor, where she’s used to being surrounded and targeted by players far smaller than she.
Maybe the cure is a dose of Tennessee’s 6-foot-6 center, Kelley Cain.
“This game I will definitely get back to the way I was playing before the incident happened and be able to go against someone in the post and not have someone on my hip where I go to the post hard and the defender falls over,” Griner said. The feeling is mutual.
“Nobody’s in my rib cage –they’re on my level,” Cain said. “Since it happens so rarely, I really enjoy playing somebody who’s my height or taller.”
The fourth-seeded Bears (25-9) and top-seeded Volunteers (32-2) bring two of the most imposing post games in the nation to the semifinals of the Memphis regional of the NCAA women’s tournament.
Tennessee, an eight-time national champion under coach Pat Summitt, is playing in its 28th round of 16 and has won all but four of those games. Baylor, making a second straight regional semifinals appearance, has won only once in five tries, beating Minnesota in 2005 and eventually winning the national title.
Today’s game is a rematch of the first game of the season for both teams, one that Tennessee won 74-65.
“We know Baylor, but guess what? They know us,” Summitt said. “It’s a different team.”
Aside from the unwanted attention that came after she punched Jordan Barncastle, Griner has changed quite a bit since then, blossoming into the nation’s premier shot-blocker.
She averages 18.4 points, 8.5 rebounds and 6.2 blocks per game. She set an NCAA record with 14 blocks in Baylor’s 49-33 win over Georgetown in the tournament’s second round.
Griner isn’t the only one who’s improved. With junior guard and team captain Melissa Jones on the bench through much of Big 12 Conference play with a leg injury, Mulkey was forced to play more freshmen than she would have otherwise.
“I suppose the silver lining to Melissa Jones’ injury is that the freshmen had to grow up a lot quicker than we really wanted them to,” Mulkey said.
But it’s not just the Bears who have improved. Tennessee has done some growing of its own.
A year ago, the Vols were on the practice court instead of playing in their 28th-straight round of 16. They lost to Ball State 71-55 in the opening round, and Summitt put them back to work with the challenge that a first-round loss “better not happen again.”
Cain has been at the heart of Tennessee’s improvement as a vocal leader on the floor. She’s also been the subject of double-team coverage this season, and her teammates have made opponents pay.
Cain set a Tennessee record with 12 blocks against LSU in February. She averages 3.5 blocks per game.
Junior Angie Bjorklund (University High) leads Tennessee is scoring at 14.0 ppg.