- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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HARTFORD, Conn. -- It wasn't quite the mano-a-mano battle in a tight-spotlight focus that perhaps it could have been. Still, Baylor center Brittney Griner and her UConn counterpart, Stefanie Dolson, were quite an intriguing show Monday.
The No. 1-ranked team and defending NCAA champion solidified its standing as Baylor won 76-70 in the game that women's basketball fans have been looking forward to all season. For the most part, it lived up to expectations.
And, despite a slow first half, so did Griner. The reigning national player of the year had 25 points -- reaching the 3,000 plateau for her career -- 9 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 blocked shots. Oh, and also only one foul. Although if you were to ask the full-house XL Center crowd about that, you can assume they would have been blowing their whistles all night.
The temperature went up in this packed building with 15 minutes, 46 seconds left in the second half. Down goes Dolson! The officials called Griner for a flagrant foul, sending Dolson to the line. Her two free throws gave the Huskies a 41-34 lead.
"When it initially happened, it got me a little rattled," Dolson said. "But my teammates did a great job picking me up and saying, 'Calm down, Stef. Don't get wrapped up in all that crazy stuff.' I was OK."
Asked if the matchup between her and Griner was as physical as it appeared to be, Dolson said, "Um, yes. We are both pretty physical players, and we went in there and knew it was going to be a battle. And it was."
Dolson for the most part shrugged off the foul as "heat of the moment." The junior finished with 11 points -- shooting 4-of-13 from the field -- 8 rebounds, 5 assists and 3 blocked shots.
She played 40 minutes and acknowledged her entire body was sore afterward. Coach Geno Auriemma praised Dolson's play but called out the rest of his team for not helping her enough with containing Griner in the second half.
"You're not going to be able to guard Brittney Griner for 40 minutes by yourself," Auriemma said. "And in the first half, she guarded her with a lot of help from a lot of people. In the second half, she got no help from anybody. And when we did help, we did so in a way that left [other players] open because we didn't rotate. Everything we did right in the first half, we didn't do right in the second half.
"I thought Stefanie was spectacular. It never even entered my mind to take her out. Well, I shouldn't say that. One time I thought, 'Maybe I should get her out.' Then I looked over [at the bench] and I went, 'Nah, maybe not.'"
Meanwhile, Griner played 38 minutes, and rallied admirably from a first half in which she had only four points on 2-of-9 shooting. Then again, if you've watched Griner grow up in her four years at Baylor, you were expecting a big second half from her.
"I told just told them, 'Keep throwing her the ball,'" Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said. "She'll find you, cut, and get open. And she did. She scored her 3,000th point here in a big game. Big game! A significant game!"
However, Mulkey being Mulkey, she then also wanted to stress that maybe it wasn't such a big game after all. Or it was but, well … it shouldn't be treated as "overly" big. Or something like that.
"This was a great game for women's basketball," Mulkey said. "But this game is not going to knock Geno out of a No. 1 seed. It's not going to make us a guaranteed overall No. 1 seed. It's not going to be a game where we get on that plane and we celebrate like, 'We just beat UConn! Wow!'
"It gave us a gauge of what to expect. It will help improve his team, and help improve my team. We both owe a lot to the game of basketball, because it's been good to us. The timing of playing it in February can sometimes make you lose what your real priority is."
Mulkey went on to explain then that the real priority for Auriemma was trying to win the Big East (which Notre Dame is currently leading), while for Baylor the priority is winning the Big 12. Actually, the Lady Bears already clinched the regular-season Big 12 title. At 14-0 in the conference, they have a five-game lead over second-place Texas Tech and Iowa State with four games to go.
Time to pop open the sparkling apple cider, right? Mulkey said yes, and that when the Lady Bears get home to Waco, they will indeed celebrate a Big 12 title that most people seemed to think was just a matter of Baylor correctly finding its way to the gym for every conference game.
But that's not fair, really, to the process. Baylor has had to stay focused this season and not cruise on the 40-0 memories of last season. Griner has had to improve the areas that could be critical in whatever close games the Lady Bears might play, such as Monday's.
Those areas include passing in the post (she did that well Monday), staying out of foul trouble (ditto), remaining patient (ditto again), and hitting clutch free throws (one more ditto).
The last time she played here in Hartford -- at the beginning of her sophomore season in 2010-11 -- Griner clanked too many at the foul line in a 65-64 loss. This time, with an NCAA title under her belt as she finishes out a brilliant college career, Griner was 5-of-5 from the stripe.
There was plenty of other glory to go around for Baylor. Destiny Williams started and gave the Lady Bears a spark inside in the first half that they needed. She finished with seven points and eight rebounds. Brooklyn Pope came off the bench and was huge for the Lady Bears with 18 points, 9 rebounds and 3 steals.
Baylor point guard Odyssey Sims didn't have her "best" game, but she still had nine points and seven assists, with no turnovers.
Dolson praised her teammate, Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, who had game highs of 26 points and 15 rebounds. Dolson acknowledged that the Huskies will have to get whatever lessons they can from this game and be ready if they and the Lady Bears cross paths in the NCAA tournament.
"We have to get better at the things we all know we have to work on," Dolson said. "I think Baylor did a great job of pressuring us and they got us a little rattled a few times. We have to work on keeping our composure and make sure we stick together, that we're always running our plays correctly, listening to each other."
Whether this is the last word between the Baylor and UConn seniors remains to be seen. If it was, they can be quite satisfied with the statement they made of a mature team that didn't panic or get flustered in a hostile environment. But if it wasn't … if they meet again this season. …
That's something to look forward to even more.
11dBonnie D. Ford