- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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DENVER -- Brittney Griner has never really talked about wanting to win for herself, although she'd never won a title. That's right. Even going back to high school in Houston, she had no championship to call her own.
Now she does, after Baylor's 80-61 NCAA final victory against Notre Dame on Tuesday. Some might claim it's what Griner needed to have in a season in which she swept all the major individual awards. But Griner said it wasn't validation for her.
"This is what our team wanted, and this is what we promised Coach when we got here," Griner said of the vow she made to Kim Mulkey when she committed to Baylor.
Griner said she didn't feel pressured during this season, in which Baylor was the front-runner for the title. But by the same token, she definitely felt a sense of obligation to win it all.
"If we didn't, I'd feel like I let down Baylor and Coach," Griner said.
But Mulkey said she has always believed in Griner's ability.
"Brittney Griner, whether she won today or not, will go down in the history of the women's game [as] if not the greatest post player, one of the greatest," Mulkey said. "I'm so glad that she has that ring now."
On Tuesday, Griner rose to the occasion the way she has all season. Her 26 points, 13 rebounds and 5 blocked shots capped off Baylor's 40-0 campaign and put her firmly in the spotlight that undeniably has also had a harsh glare sometimes.
After the game, Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said, when asked to assess Griner's impact: "I think she's one of a kind. I think she's like a guy playing with women. It's just that there's so many things that she can do that I've not seen a lot of women well, really, you know there's been some guards that had some skill like that. But as a post player, she's the best I've ever seen."
The "guy" part of that quote caused some controversy, much to McGraw's chagrin. Some people's reactions to the 6-foot-8 Griner's athleticism and her physical/vocal characteristics have created an uncomfortable subtext to her story. Comments on message boards and in social media have questioned Griner's gender.
These insults have greatly pained her teammates and Mulkey. McGraw almost immediately after her news conference issued a statement that she never intended anything by her remark except to compliment Griner.
But the fact is, McGraw should have known better, especially after all these years coaching women's basketball. McGraw couldn't possibly be unaware of the insults that have been directed toward Griner or how such remarks have always been used as a weapon against women's athletics.
That said, McGraw surely was contrite, and for her part, Griner has said she doesn't really get bothered by negative things people say about her.
Tuesday night, in fact, she said she couldn't be happier with the exception that her mom -- who was back home in Texas babysitting Griner's nephew -- couldn't be in Denver.
Griner has dealt with her burgeoning fame with good humor. Asked about the strangest thing she has seen this season, Griner smiled.
"Well, somebody started crying because they saw me, and they kept calling me a superstar," she said. "And I was saying, 'I'm still in college, I'm not even a pro or anything.' I don't think it's that big a deal. But it's crazy; I've signed foreheads with permanent markers."
Griner would be technically eligible to leave for the WNBA because she will turn 22 this year, but she said she didn't even consider that.
"Money isn't everything; money doesn't really buy happiness," she said. "I made a commitment and I gave my word. These are your best years, in college, and I'm trying to have my full experience. It was never tempting. I never really had to think or debate about it."
On Tuesday she shared a warm embrace after the game with Mulkey, who has been a perfect coach for Griner. Mulkey has motivated her and they have a great relationship.
"As you can tell, she has a little fire in her," Griner said of Mulkey. "She's always teasing Odyssey [Sims], 'If I was playing with the big girl, I'd be dropping dimes and throwing lobs to her.' And then she tells me, 'I'd come right at you, big girl.' And I'm thinking, 'Yeah, and I'd put it right back in your face.'"
Griner and all of us reporters she was talking to cracked up at that. Asked whether she'd actually say that to Mulkey, Griner grinned and said, "No, but I'm pretty sure she's going to hear it now."
Mulkey wouldn't mind at all. In fact, she has said she really wants more aggression from Griner and greater vocal leadership. Griner might get the final spot on this summer's Olympic women's hoops team, and she says she's ready to work hard to be even better next season.
"Whatever Coach says, that's what I'll do," Griner said. "She's led me in the right direction at Baylor. I have to get louder on court and in practice. I'm going to do better on offensive boards. But right at the moment, I'm not thinking about next year. All I know is I'm going to be right here at Baylor."