Baylor's Griner to return to the court Friday

March, 12, 2010
03/12/10
2:06
AM ET

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Brittney Griner sat in the stands behind the Baylor bench at the Big 12 tournament and watched her teammates figure out a way to beat Colorado without her. They will not have to do the same thing Friday against Oklahoma.

Griner will be back after her two-game suspension for punching Texas Tech's Jordan Barncastle, and Baylor will be oh-so-happy to have her return to the floor.

With Griner in the lineup in February -- getting a triple-double that included 11 blocked shots -- Baylor beat Colorado by 34 points. Without Griner, No. 6 seed Baylor had to throw on a full-court press and get a very special guest-star appearance from Whitney Zachariason to beat the Buffaloes 72-65 in the first round.

Baylor trailed by eight points at halftime and was still down by that much with 13:40 left in the game. But then Baylor gained back the momentum with pressure defense, and the Buffs had no answer for Zachariason. Of course, they weren't expecting she'd be such a problem.

Zachariason's career high in points coming into Thursday's game was seven. But with the Buffs fully committed to a zone defense, Baylor coach Kim Mulkey called on the "Z" to bust it up. And she did, hitting five 3-pointers on the way to a team-high 17 points.

Asked if using Zachariason was a game-time decision, Mulkey said, "Yeah, it was sittin' on the bench and watching us miss shots from the perimeter. And I thought, 'Hell, give her a shot.'"

Baylor's comeback was the nightcap of four closely contested games in Big 12 first-round action; all were decided by single digits. The day started with a reminder of the Griner-Barncastle tussle; Barncastle was wearing a face mask to protect her broken nose. That is, until she couldn't stand it anymore.

At one point, she became so irritated with the mask that she took it off, but then later put it back on. She never seemed comfortable the whole game, and didn't score in Tech's 59-51 loss to Kansas State.

"I thought she didn't look herself today, defensively especially," Tech coach Kristy Curry said of Barncastle. "She was way too passive."

What will be interesting to see is if Griner is somewhat passive against the Sooners, or if she'll feel comfortable asserting herself. The No. 3 seed Sooners and Baylor split their meetings during the regular season, with Baylor winning 57-47 in Waco, Texas, on Jan. 13 and Oklahoma taking a 62-60 overtime win in Norman, Okla., on Feb. 10.

Griner had two of her bigger rejection games against the Sooners; in each meeting, she blocked 11 shots. She had 12 points in the victory against OU and 17 in the loss.

Friday's quarterfinal will be the fourth Big 12 tournament meeting between Oklahoma and Baylor, and the Sooners have won the previous three. Two of those were for the championship (2002, '06) and the other was in the semifinals ('07).

In those last two tourney meetings with Baylor, the Sooners were led by Courtney Paris. She remains the Big 12's leading career scorer … but only for a little while longer.

In the outstanding individual performance of Thursday, Oklahoma State guard Andrea Riley had 37 points in a 76-69 victory over Kansas. Riley's total bested Paris' single-game tournament record of 36 points set in 2006. And with that performance, Riley now has 2,729 points in her career, which ties her with Paris. Riley's first basket or free throw Friday when the Cowgirls face Iowa State will give her the record.

"To us, she is the MVP of the conference," Oklahoma State coach Kurt Budke said. "There is nobody more valuable to a team."

Well, Nebraska fans would disagree, as their star, Kelsey Griffin, is the Big 12 Player of the Year and has led the Huskers to a 29-0 record. Top-seeded Nebraska, which has never won the Big 12 tournament title and never reached the final, will start its quest in the day's first game against Kansas State.

The other matchup Friday will pit Texas -- which survived Missouri in Tigers coach Cindy Stein's last game, 64-59 -- against Texas A&M. The Aggies have vexed Texas coach Gail Goestenkors since she arrived in Austin for the 2007-08 season. She has lost all six meetings with Texas A&M. In fact, Texas has beaten A&M just once since 2005.

But the game of the day could well be the last one, with Baylor and Oklahoma both trying to boost their NCAA tournament seeding. Baylor got a lift from an unexpected source on Thursday. But Friday, Mulkey hopes to see everything back to normal, with Griner crowding the lane, not sitting in the crowd.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

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