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Published: Tuesday, 3/20/2012

Center of attention

Blocked shots are Griner's favorite stat

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST
Baylor's Brittney Griner blocks a shot of UC Santa Barbara's Destini Mason in a NCAA tournament game at BGSU. Griner was the defensive player of the year last year and has more blocks this season. Baylor's Brittney Griner blocks a shot of UC Santa Barbara's Destini Mason in a NCAA tournament game at BGSU. Griner was the defensive player of the year last year and has more blocks this season.
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BOWLING GREEN -- Kim Mulkey, the Baylor University women's basketball coach, remembers the first time she saw Brittney Griner. It was, she thinks, the summer before Griner entered ninth grade.

"She had this big braid down the back of her hair, and she probably at that time may have been 6-foot-4," Mulkey recalled. "And I just thought, 'wow, [if] this kid grows into her body.' She had great wingspan."

Mulkey also recalls that Griner was raw, not particularly fluid around the rim, not real aware of where she was in the paint, and didn't have "a great presence on the floor. But you couldn't help but notice her because we're all looking for big girls and, at that age, she could block shots back then."

Griner is a 6-8 Baylor junior now and, as you might imagine, she is still blocking shots.

The most dominant player in women's college basketball, Griner has played in 107 career games and is averaging 21.5 points and 8.5 rebounds. She puts on dunking exhibitions in practice and has had a fair number of them in games too, as is well documented on YouTube.

But of all the statistics and all the exploits, the most eye-popping numbers are her blocked shots.

Entering Tuesday night's second-round NCAA tournament game against Florida at the Stroh Center, Griner has blocked 571 shots, an average of 5.3 per game during her career.

"Defense is my favorite part of the game," Griner said. "And blocking shots is my favorite thing to do, even over dunking. I mean, if I can stop the other team from scoring I feel like that's helping out my team. Just being a presence in the paint, the other team, even if they don't drive they know I'm there.

"But blocking shots is the only [stat] I care about. Yeah, everyone talks to me about the dunks but that's the last thing on my list."

The No. 1 thing on all of the Baylor Bears' lists is winning the NCAA championship and Griner is certainly their main meal ticket towards that end.

"A player that plays above the rim is a rarity … [but] we are not Brittney Griner," Mulkey protested. "We are Baylor women's basketball, and everybody on this team has a role to play."

And everybody on Mulkey's team is pretty good. Better than pretty good, in many cases. Still, everything, at both ends of the court, either goes through or to Griner.

Offensively, Griner knows her range and, in it, there is not a shot of any variety that she can't make. Defensively, the Bears force the ball to one side, guard against it being reversed, and all but invite opponents to take an open lane to the post area.

"You would never open a line like that if you didn't have Brittney in there," Mulkey admitted.

Her presence allows the Bears to if not gamble, certainly be aggressive in the passing lanes and create turnovers. If that doesn't work, Griner is back there playing goalie with tremendous height and wingspan -- 88 inches from side to side, and a standing, one-arm reach of 9 feet, 2 inches -- that seems almost unfair.

Her shot-blocking exploits are legendary. At Houston's Nimitz High School, she once swatted 25 shots in a game. Early in her senior year, Griner had a quadruple-double with 36 points, 15 rebounds, 15 blocks, and 10 assists against the No. 2-ranked team in the state. As a Baylor freshman, she set NCAA tournament records with 14 rejections in a single game against Georgetown and with 40 total blocks in five games. A season ago, she was the nation's defensive player of the year, and she already has more blocks this season.

In Sunday's opening-round mismatch against UC Santa Barbara, Griner had 14 points, three rebounds, and three blocks in barely more than one half of action. With Baylor missing few attempts and with UCSB getting limited shots in the first half -- the score at intermission was 46-16 -- there weren't many rebounds to be had.

Gauchos center Kirsten Tilleman, who was at a seven-inch disadvantage, tried her best to be physical with Griner, always with defensive help, but had little chance.

"There's a reason people say she's the best center in the country and maybe even the world," Tilleman said of Griner. "She's not just 6-8; she's got skills as well."

Now, it's Florida's turn to try and find an answer against the 35-0 Bears.

"Brittney Griner, to me, is probably going to go down as the greatest to ever play the game at her position," Mulkey said, before cautioning, "I don't think you've seen the best of Brittney yet."

Now, there's a not-so-comforting thought for future opponents.

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.



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