- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- It was hard Sunday to not reflect back to two years ago this month, when Baylor center Brittney Griner was just getting introduced to college basketball and Tennessee's Pat Summitt still seemed like she would be coaching forever.
Sunday, Baylor and Tennessee met again at Thompson-Boling Arena in a marquee November game. Now Griner is a junior and front-runner for national player of the year. And Summitt is in the fight of her life, battling early onset dementia, Alzheimer's type, after being diagnosed this summer.
The Pat Summitt Foundation was officially launched at halftime with the goals of raising awareness and funds for Alzheimer's research. Baylor's players joined Tennessee's in wearing purple "We Back Pat" warm-up T-shirts, while many in the crowd of 16,623 donned the orange version of the shirts.
And at one point, it looked like it could be a near-perfect afternoon for the No. 7 Lady Vols -- fueled by the positive emotions and confidence they didn't show a week ago in a surprising loss at Virginia.
But then Griner and her teammates reminded everyone who the No. 1 team in the country is. Baylor's 76-67 victory was a testament to Griner's ability to wear down her foes -- she had 26 points, seven blocked shots and six rebounds while playing all 40 minutes -- point guard Odyssey Sims' multi-dimensional contributions, Jordan Madden embracing her defensive-stopper role and the Lady Bears in general showing that they can handle any atmosphere they encounter.
"I saw a team grow up," Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said.
She was referring specifically to an inbounds play in the second half: a perfect lob to Griner that beat the shot clock and was pretty much impossible to defend.
"They didn't look at me for a [play] call," Mulkey said proudly. "Every one of them -- not just Griner, not just Sims -- knew what to run there. And that's when you know your team is making progress."
That's a frightening concept to the rest of the nation: Baylor, which ended its past two seasons with losses to the eventual NCAA champion, is still in evolutionary mode toward being the team that Mulkey hopes for. Because the Lady Bears are pretty darn good already. It showed with Baylor's composure as much as anything, including a rally from being down by eight early in the second half.
Tennessee wanted this victory badly, especially after such a subpar effort a week ago in losing to Virginia.
"We asked our team today, 'All we want you to do is have a lot of heart, play with a lot of emotion and compete,'" Tennessee associate head coach Holly Warlick said. "I think we did that.
"But when your back is against the wall, you go to your money player. They went to Brittney Griner, and we didn't have an answer the last four minutes."
The Lady Vols can take solace from the fact they actually did have answers for a lot of things in this contest, especially in how they rebounded.
Tennessee's 56-42 edge was the first time since Texas Tech upset Baylor last February that the Lady Bears were beaten on the boards. Shekinna Stricklen had 12 rebounds, Glory Johnson 11 and Vicki Baugh 10. And those three players combined for 51 points, led by Stricklen's 25.
But Griner took control at crunch time -- just as one of the "fans" in attendance at Sunday's game, Tennessee legend Chamique Holdsclaw, used to do in her college playing days. Griner had 17 of her points in the second half.
"Freshman year, we kind of got thrown into the fire," Griner said, recalling her previous visit to Knoxville, a 74-65 loss on Nov. 17, 2009, that was her first college game. "Now being a junior, we know what to do. We understand the game better."
Griner actually wasn't referring to herself in the plural, but rather talking about herself and fellow junior starters Madden and Kimetria Hayden. Sims is only a sophomore, but she also started her career with a stern test on the road: facing defending NCAA champion UConn in just her fourth college game last November.
Baylor lost that game, the aforementioned February contest at Texas Tech, and then -- most painfully -- the Elite Eight showdown in March against eventual national champion Texas A&M for a 34-3 record last season. That final defeat, in particular, has been fuel for the Lady Bears for this season, which they've started 6-0.
Sunday, Sims didn't shoot well from the field (4-of-15) but made up for it from the foul line (14-of-15) for 23 points, and the near-triple-double numbers of nine assists and eight rebounds.
Baylor had just nine turnovers while collecting 17 assists, plus went 22-of-24 from the line and held Tennessee to 29.3 percent shooting from the field. All those things were key to the Lady Bears surviving being outrebounded by 13.
A defensive gold star goes to Madden, the 6-foot guard whose assignment in the first half was to stop perimeter threat Taber Spani, who'd combined for 42 points in Tennessee's past two games. Madden limited Spani to 1-of-4 shooting -- a 3-pointer -- in the first 20 minutes. But, meanwhile, Tennessee's Stricklen had 19 points before the break.
"At halftime, Coach Mulkey asked the team who they wanted to guard Shekinna Stricklen," Madden said. "And they all picked me."
It was an answer Mulkey surely expected; Madden's quickness, length and tenacity were the right formula to slow down her fellow Arkansas native Stricklen, who was limited to six points in the second half. (Spani finished with 10.)
Madden also added 11 points and three assists to go with seven rebounds and three blocked shots. Speaking of blocks, along with the seven that the 6-8 Griner had was the phenomenon known as the "Griner effect:" She changes the way people shoot, even when they're attempting to not succumb to that.
"You're just trying to make sure that you don't alter your shot when you play a team like this," Johnson said. "Brittney is a shot-blocker; we all know that. We want to keep on going into her and keep shooting our shots like we do every day in practice."
Yet Johnson acknowledged she started feeling the "Griner effect" even though she was guarding against it. That said, this loss certainly wasn't because of Tennessee's front line.
Baugh had what she called her most confident and comfortable game since the 2008 NCAA final, which was when she suffered a torn ACL and began such a long and painful journey to regain her full health. When Baugh plays this way, Tennessee is very difficult for any team short of Baylor to beat.
If there is a big concern for Tennessee right now, it's that the backcourt pair of sophomore Meighan Simmons and freshman Ariel Massengale again struggled so much shooting, just as they did in the loss at Virginia. In that game, they were a combined 2-of-13 from the field; Sunday, they were 2-of-22.
Overall, though, Summitt -- who praised the fans for their support and commitment to her personally -- wasn't unhappy with her team's effort.
"I saw us do some really good things," Summitt said. "This is a game we can certainly grow from and learn from. Baylor is a great team, and I don't think we'll see one any better."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at mechellevoepelblog.com.
Tennessee dominated the boards and played well enough to please Pat Summitt. But it wasn't enough to counter Brittney Griner, who wore down the Lady Vols and got plenty of help from her Baylor teammates.