- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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BOWLING GREEN, Ohio -- You have no trouble believing Baylor coach Kim Mulkey -- she of the bright-gold game-day jacket -- when she says, "If I could dunk, I'd do back flips down the floor."
But you might find it hard to believe that someone who really can throw it down -- Baylor junior center Brittney Griner -- sometimes just doesn't think to do it. That's what Griner says: It doesn't always occur to her even when the chance is there. Mulkey, though, theorizes that Griner is a bit worried about whether observers might write or say something negative.
"I think she's scared to get excited sometimes and celebrate a dunk," Mulkey said. "I think she's gotten away from trying to be monstrous with going to the rim. I told her about two weeks ago, 'Even if you miss it, it sends a message: I'm here to play.' So it was good to see her do it."
Griner got her first dunk of this season -- and the sixth of her career -- about two minutes into the second half of No. 1 seed Baylor's 76-57 victory over No. 9 Florida on Monday at Bowling Green's Stroh Center. Odyssey Sims missed a 3-pointer, but then Baylor got the ball back after an offensive rebound by Kimetria "Nae-Nae" Hayden. She passed to Griner, who took one step and dunked with one hand.
Griner is the second woman to dunk in the NCAA tournament; Tennessee's Candace Parker did it twice in 2006. And while it created a buzz, Griner herself essentially shrugged. The dunk accounted for just two of her 25 points, is how she sees it. She was happier about her six blocked shots, one of which was a LeBron James-esque, perfect-timing swat from behind on a Florida fast break.
"Dunking is cool, but I really don't care too much about it," the 6-foot-8 Griner said. "My big thing is blocked shots; that's my favorite thing to do. I have a lot of opportunities to dunk; I'll jump up and my arm will be above the rim, but I'll lay it in. And then think, 'Oh, I should have dunked that.' Coach is trying to encourage me to think about it more.
"This one just came. I don't know -- I wasn't thinking about dunking it, but it just happened, really. She dumped it off to me, I palmed it and just went up."
It happened because it was the highest-percentage shot she had available and Griner's mind seems to automatically work that way now, as she's refined herself as a premiere center. She wasn't dunking to be flashy, but rather because her basketball instincts kicked in that it was the best way for her to score.
However, considering that Baylor was up by "only" nine points at halftime and was looking to put a foot on the gas pedal against the pesky Gators, the dunk also seemed to serve as an accelerant for the Lady Bears. It put them up by 13 points, and they maintained a double-digit lead the rest of the way.
Despite the absence of the host Falcons (who did not make the tournament field this year) and de facto host Ohio State (upset by Florida in the first round), Bowling Green's new facility had a good-sized crowd on hand to see the No. 1 team and its star attraction, Griner.
She dunked to the fans' delight in warm-ups, but the real thing during the game of course brought a stronger reaction. Including from her teammates.
"Did you see Nae-Nae Hayden?" Baylor's Destiny Williams asked of her fellow junior's jubilant reaction to the Griner dunk. "She was shaking out there. I don't know what she was doing."
Hayden said, "It just fired us up and let us know that Brittney was focused. They were playing physical out there, and she went up strong. They were excited to play us, and we needed to match that. I feel like after the dunk, we started playing better defense, going to rim. So I think it did have an impact on us.
"Usually, in practice if she's by herself, she can dunk easily. But I think everybody got a little crazy because she dunked on somebody this time."
Griner, though, did not get crazy. Not over the dunk nor over the opening dozen minutes of the game when Florida's defense was doing everything possible to keep her from getting the ball.
Part of her improvement is the confidence she has even if teams are defending her well. She will find open teammates and count on the fact that, eventually, Baylor will break down its foes' best efforts and she will get her shots.
"In the beginning of the game, I didn't have too many touches, but it didn't faze me too much," Griner said. "I knew if I just stayed patient, I'd get the ball. The offense would come."
It turned out a dunk came, too. Even if Griner actually wasn't expecting that. It just came naturally.
17dBonnie D. Ford