Sports

#1 Baylor Faces #2 UConn

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UConn vx Baylor, April 4, 2010 (Jeff Gross Getty Images)

UConn vx Baylor, April 4, 2010 (Jeff Gross Getty Images)

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By DOUG FEINBERG, AP Basketball Writer

Brittney Griner has been looking forward to another shot against Connecticut. She’ll get her chance on Sunday when top-ranked Baylor faces the No. 2 Huskies.

The two teams met early last season with the rankings reversed and UConn escaped with a one-point victory in Hartford, rallying from a late eight-point deficit. The 6-foot-8 phenom felt the loss was her fault.

“That last game with UConn has been on my mind for a long time,” Griner said. “The one thing I think about the most is my free throws. It was just horrible that game. After that game, I hit almost every free throw I attempted.”

Griner missed eight of 13 from the free throw line, including some key misses down the stretch that allowed UConn to rally for the 65-64 win.

She hasn’t been missing much of anything this season, leading Baylor to victory after victory. Griner is averaging 22.8 points, 10.7 rebounds and 4.9 blocks in just 30 minutes a game this season for the Lady Bears (10-0). She’s also shooting 73 percent from the foul line.

So far Baylor and Connecticut’s games this season have been anything but competitive. The Lady Bears have won by an average of 34.5 points. Throw out wins over ranked Notre Dame and Tennessee and the margin jumps to nearly 40 a game.

“I know I’m definitely ready for a game like this. Our team is ready for a game like this,” Griner said. “These are the kind of games basketball players live for, 1 vs. 2, big games. Nobody wants to blow out a team, that’s not fun. You want hard competitive games when everybody puts it on the line. Those games I love playing.”

There has been a definite buzz around Waco leading up to the game, which sold out weeks in advance for the first time in school history.

“It’s great for women’s basketball, great for Baylor,” Lady Bears coach Kim Mulkey said. “The thing I will take away from it win or lose, now we’ve played Notre Dame, we’ve played Connecticut, we’ve got Big 12 coming up. … Win or lose, where do we need to improve? It’s a gauge, nothing more than a gauge right now. That is the way I will approach it after the game is over.”

Connecticut (9-0) has run through its opposition this season winning by nearly 41.5 points a game, including a 30-point
demolition of defending national champion Texas A&M in the Jimmy V Classic. Yet they are in a little different role, playing only their second road game of the season and for once may not be expected to win.

“It’s weird,” UConn center Stefanie Dolson said. “Everyone always says you don’t focus on the ranking and the hype that everyone’s talking about. Who’s going to win? Who’s the underdog? So for us we don’t really focus on that. We’re just going to kind of go out and play as hard as we can, compete as hard as we can. And whoever wins is the better team that night.”

There haven’t been many nights over the last few years that the Huskies haven’t been the better team. It’s the first time in four seasons that UConn will be playing a higher ranked opponent. UConn has only lost twice in the last three seasons– falling at Stanford last December that ended their record 90-game winning streak. The Huskies then lost in the Final Four to Notre Dame.

`I don’t think there has been a better team in the country of going on the road and playing against Top 5 teams in the country and done a better job than us in the last 10 years or so,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “That is the beauty of it. I am like a fan going down there Sunday night. I really want to see how we handle this.”

Auriemma always expects greatness out of his players. He got to know Griner while she played for the U.S. national  women’s basketball team on a European tour this past Fall and came away impressed.

“There’s nobody else in the world like her,” Auriemma said. “I don’t care who Australia has. I don’t care who Russia has or anybody else has. Nobody has anybody like Brittney Griner … There’s things that she can do that no one else can do on any other team in the world.”

Griner has a mutual respect for the Hall of Fame coach. She even spent a little time on the trip going to the town in Italy where he was born and meeting his family.

“I always viewed him as a great coach, he’s done a lot for the UConn program and women’s basketball,” she said. “I view him as an opponent this game, but this past summer, he was my coach. You’ve got to turn it on. Like when you’re playing in AAU, your best friend would be on another team, you’re best  friends, but both are trying to win, doing everything to win and at the end of the day you’re still best friends. It’s the competitive nature.”

Sadly this might be the last time these two meet as opponents unless it’s in the NCAA tournament. The budding rivalry will come to an end Sunday as the two teams aren’t schedule to play against next season. UConn first beat Griner and Baylor when she was a freshman in the Final Four.

ESPN NBA analyst Jeff Van Gundy, who will be broadcasting the game, was disappointed to hear that they won’t be playing anymore in the regular season.

“”They should do a mini playoff series, three straight games,” he said.” Once you get past the top 10 or 15 teams, who’s
challenging these teams? The preseason is almost a joke, beating teams by 30 or 40. It’s not good for the sport.”
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AP Basketball Writer Stephen Hawkins contributed from Waco, Texas.
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Follow Doug Feinberg at http://twitter.com/dougfeinberg

     (Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)

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