By SCHUYLER DIXON, Associated Press
WACO, Texas (AP) _ The five freshmen led by 6-foot-8 dunking sensation Brittney Griner are now the seven sophomores looking to take Baylor to a second straight Final Four. The No. 2 Lady Bears will find out soon enough whether their two additions are the trick to toppling Connecticut, which entered the season with a record 78-game winning streak. Baylor was victim No. 77 in the national semifinals last season, and gets another shot at the top-ranked Huskies on Nov. 16 in Hartford.
Baylor coach Kim Mulkey knows this much after 10 seasons in Waco. Five years after winning a national championship, she’s never had a better chance to beat the best program in women’s basketball and might have the firepower to challenge for that title before long.
“This is the most talented team that I’ve ever coached at Baylor,” Mulkey said.
Even without the arrivals of Destiny Williams from Illinois and Brooklyn Pope from Rutgers, Mulkey’s options would be the envy of most coaches. The latest potential freshman standout is Odyssey Sims, like Pope a former Texas high school star who ranked among the top recruits in the nation.
Sims figured she would have to wait a year to take over the team from Kelli Griffin, but the senior point guard who had started 50 consecutive games abruptly quit last week. Now Sims is in the mix with a number of younger players whose first priority will be trying to make life easier for Griner.
“I feel like I can lighten the load if I put the ball in the hoop,” Pope said. “It’s not even about me. It’s just about whatever everybody else can do. Everybody can lighten the load for Brittney if they just play within the system.”
The system definitely starts with Griner, who gets attention for her dunks but whose legacy might be for her blocked shots. She set a national record with 223 blocks as a freshman, including another mark of 40 blocks in five NCAA tournament games. A consistent triple-double threat (she had a Big 12 record-tying three last season), Griner’s averages of 18.4 points, 8.5 rebounds and 6.4 blocks as a freshman could just be a start.
“I hope the coaching staff is able to elevate her game to a new level,” Mulkey said. “She doesn’t have a body that’s just going to put on a lot of weight, but she can get stronger.”
Griner was pushed around plenty last season, and reached a breaking point in a late-season win over Texas Tech when she punched Jordan Barncastle and broke her nose. Mulkey said the towering sophomore with a 7-foot-4 wingspan did well the first year of managing the burden of “being Brittney Griner,” but Griner
says her coach is pushing everyone for more after an unexpected Final Four trip.
“I like it,” Griner said of the growing expectations. “When you have this much talent on a team and high expectations, it’s going to come. It’s just something you have to learn to deal with.”
The givens in the Baylor lineup are Griner and Melissa Jones, the lone senior with significant experience after Griffin’s departure. Jones was slowed by a leg injury last season but still finished as the only other double-figure scorer besides Griner.
Who provides the help is anybody’s guess. Shanay Washington is second in experience to Griner among the returning sophomores after averaging 7.3 points in 36 games, including 32 starts.
The roles and stats for all the returning players are in flux, though. Williams and Pope bring pedigrees few can match, which means they’ll likely take minutes from what was already a long list of contributors.
“I think the talent around her will continue to help Brittney,” Mulkey said. “Yes, a lot of attention is drawn to her. And that’s understandable. But she has got a lot, a lot of people around her that will help her game take it to the next level.”
Pope has a strong chance to be one of those helpers. She won a state championship with a high school in Fort Worth, just 100 miles north of Waco, and strongly considered Baylor before choosing Rutgers. When she decided she wanted to be closer to home, the destination was obvious.
She’s not on the East Coast anymore, but Pope is still chasing an East Coast school. Along with everyone else.
“Connecticut is always in my head no matter what, when, where or why,” Pope said. “Not because we’re playing them, but because they are a great model for women’s basketball.”
Baylor could be making that claim before long.
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)