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It was senior night in Waco, Texas, but not the last time for No. 1 Baylor to play on its home court this season. The Lady Bears will be back at the Ferrell Center for the early rounds of the NCAA tournament in a few weeks.
That will be after they go just more than an hour's drive north on Interstate 35 to Dallas for the Big 12 tournament in what seems like a formality. As long as they stay healthy, the Lady Bears seem a lock to win that title for the third year in a row and a record fifth time overall.
So Monday night didn't have quite the air of "fond fairwell" that it would have had if Baylor were not an NCAA host. Just the same, it was a night for reflection, for honoring a senior class that is trying to help Baylor repeat as national champion.
|Before Monday's career-high 50 points, Brittney Griner's previous best was 45, which she also scord against K-State, in last season's Big 12 tourney.|
And in games such as this, even low-key, low-maintenance seniors can find their emotions getting the better of them. A kaleidoscope of memories passes through their minds, the realization that an important chapter of their lives is nearing an end.
That overwhelms some seniors. It ignites others. For center Brittney Griner, senior night was a treasured chance to take the stage in the arena where she is beloved and put on a virtuoso performance.
A Big 12 single-game record 50 points, going 21-of-28 from the field -- including a one-handed jam -- and 8-of-10 from the foul line. Six rebounds, two assists, two blocked shots. A 90-68 victory over a scrappy Kansas State squad to complete Baylor's second consecutive perfect regular season in the Big 12.
A lot of women's hoops fans actually might not have seen much of this game; they were glued to the epic Notre Dame triple-overtime win over UConn in Skylar Diggins' last hurrah on her home court. Baylor-Kansas State, while surprisingly close for a while, ended up a rout. But a very beautiful blowout for Baylor fans.
We'll put it this way: The equivalent of this Griner show on Broadway would mean so many curtain calls that she wouldn't be done taking bows until well into the wee hours.
That's what Griner summoned on a night when fans were there to thank her and fellow seniors Destiny Williams, Brooklyn Pope, Jordan Madden, Kimetria "Nae-Nae" Hayden and Shanay Washington (a student assistant whose playing career was ended prematurely by injuries) for the thrill ride that Baylor has been on these past four seasons.
Save those ticket stubs, Waconians. You'll always want a keepsake to remember this game: when the greatest player in program history went for 50.
Admittedly, K-State was the type of opponent against which this was most likely to happen. The undersized "purple smurfs" win games by hitting 3-pointers and stretching defenses. And the Wildcats actually did just that -- knocking down 15 treys and scoring 15 points more than Baylor had been allowing its opponents on average.
Yet K-State still lost by 22. That's because there was ultimately nothing the Wildcats could do to limit Griner. Which is a familiar refrain. She had 29 points against K-State when the teams met in Manhattan, Kan., in January.
Last year when they met in the Big 12 tournament, Griner scored 45, which was her previous career high before Monday. In all, Griner has averaged 31 points in eight career games against the Wildcats. One can assume no team will celebrate Griner's graduation more than K-State will.
Still, the Wildcats and other Big 12 teams should take solace -- and some pride, frankly -- in knowing they've faced one of the all-time legends of women's college hoops. Someone who came in with the highest of expectations, and met or exceeded all of them.
Griner will be the WNBA's No. 1 draft pick in April, and by then she might have another NCAA title. It's likely there will be professional championships in her future as well. She has accomplished so much, and yet in some ways is still just getting started.
Each season at Baylor under Kim Mulkey's tutelage, Griner has expanded her game and gotten better at various elements that she was asked to improve. She hasn't had slumps or lulls. She has always played hard. Game after game, she has had to go out on the floor and try to live up to "being Brittney Griner."
Monday was very special, and yet in a way it was actually almost routine. Because being spectacular is pretty much just what Griner does.