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Women's basketball is better off when the nation's No. 1 team and defending champion can suffer a surprise in the Sweet 16, an improbable upset that has so often eluded the women's tournament. But the women's game is also so much better for the four seasons it had Baylor's Brittney Griner, who changed how we thought about the limits of athleticism, and grew from someone dropped in the spotlight to a person who seemed comfortable there.
Sunday's shocking Sweet 16 exit in which she hit just four shots and scored 14 points will take a place of prominence among the moments we most vividly remember about Griner's college career, but so will these five memories.
|Brittney Griner making angels in the confetti after last year's final whistle in Denver was one of the most indelible Final Four celebrations.|
We didn't know at the time that it would be her only chance to celebrate after the final game of the season, but the now-familiar image of Griner making confetti angels on the court after Baylor's win against Notre Dame in the national championship game spoke volumes about her. Griner's celebration came at the end of one of the most dominant individual seasons in the game's history, one in which she led Baylor to a 40-0 record by averaging 23.2 points (on 60 percent shooting), 9.5 rebounds and 5.2 blocks. Only Griner could do that. And few but Griner would drop to the court to make confetti angels. She could scowl and glower after blocks and big plays, but few players devoted more time to searching out the goofy joy in life than the kayaking, go-cart driving, roll-down-a-ramp, confetti-diving one.
Most of the basketball world got its first look at Griner on the court when Baylor opened her freshman season in a nationally televised game at Tennessee. We saw flashes in that moment, including four blocked shots, but it was the Lady Vols who got the win behind 25 points and 14 rebounds from Shekinna Stricklen. The teams would meet again in the Volunteer State in the Sweet 16 in Memphis, with Pat Summitt's Lady Vols the top seed in possession of a 32-2 record. Griner left much more of an impression on that night. Behind 27 points, 10 blocks and seven rebounds from its freshman star, the fourth-seeded Lady Bears pulled away for a 77-62 victory on their way to the Final Four.
|Brittney Griner scored a career-high 50 points against Kansas State on March 4, besting her previous best by five points.|
Griner couldn't let Skylar Diggins have all the fun. On the same night Diggins and Notre Dame beat Connecticut in triple overtime to sweep the regular-season series and clinch the Big East regular-season title in her final game in her hometown, Griner needed just the regulation 40 minutes to put up 50 points against Kansas State in her final regular-season game at home. It wasn't a night when the NCAA all-time leader in blocked shots piled up rejections, nor a night when she pulled down a dozen rebounds. But to see Griner hit 21 of 28 shots from the floor (and 8 of 10 shots from the free throw line) was to get a sense of what another generation must have seen watching Wilt Chamberlain.
In what was known in advance would be her final game in front of the fans in Waco, but which also turned out to be her final win, Griner left little doubt as to her special skill set or star power. She dunked three times in a second-round game against Florida State, giving her more dunks in her career than the combined totals of every other player who ever played women's college basketball. And we didn't have to wonder if she knew what she was doing. To the amusement of some and chagrin of others, a tweet from Griner's account was posted at halftime of the game. The tweet: "Need two more dunks on home court for the best crowd ever! #BaylorNation"
You can't have a list without it, a reality which was apparent to everyone the moment Griner let loose and landed a punch against Texas Tech's Jordan Barncastle during a road game late in her freshman season. First and foremost, the moment was a terrible lapse in judgement by Griner, one for which she was suspended two games. But if you concede that as the primary transgression, it was also a moment when a lot of people started to get a sense of the kind of abuse Griner took on a regular basis -- a physical pounding from opponents who didn't have any other way to stop her, aided by officials unfamiliar with a player of her scale, but also the verbal abuse heaped on her by fans.