At the final buzzer when all was said and done, Brittney Griner sprinted across the floor, one finger pointed towards the sky. Finally, she was a champion.
Behind her 26 points, 13 rebounds and five blocks, Baylor defeated Notre Dame, 80-61, in dominating fashion in the NCAA women’s basketball championship. The win capped off an unprecedented 40-0 season for the Lady Bears making them the only team — men or women — in NCAA history to post 40 wins.
Notre Dame, one of the most dominant teams in women’s basketball, was unable to figure out how to stop Griner as she showed just why opposing coaches refer to her as unstoppable. Despite being double-teamed for most of the night, she was able to score in a variety of different ways. She powered her way inside for a basket, drove for another, beat two defenders and got to the rim, dropped in a jump hook and rose over a triple-team.
All-American point guard Skylar Diggins tried her best to keep the Irish (36-4) in the game, scoring 20 points. Diggins is a star in her own right. With looks that make celebrities like Chris Brown and Li’l Wayne sweat her publicly, she is the one that the NCAA thought would be the face of women’s basketball. The 5-foot-10, junior point guard is the best player on a very good team and has now led her team to the Finals for two consecutive years, falling short each time. She puts up big numbers along the way like in the Elite Eight game this year when she recorded a triple-double (22 points, 11 assists, 10 rebounds along with five steals) in their win against Maryland.
Like Griner, Diggins plans to return to school for her senior year (both could join the WNBA draft) to try one more time to win a title.
But, the similarities end there. Standing at 6 feet and 8 inches tall, Brittney is taller than 99% of Americans. Her men’s size 17 foot and 88-inch wingspan are eye-poppers as well. Her mere size allows her to do things on the basketball court that no other woman can really do. She can block shots from quite a distance away and she routinely dunks the ball as if she were playing on the men’s team.
Griner is intimidating to opponents on both ends of the court and is widely considered the best player in women’s collegiate basketball today, if not ever. With a routine dunk against against Florida, and a two-handed, rim-rocker against Georgia Tech, Griner tied Candace Parker for most dunks by a woman in a Tournament (two) and most in a collegiate career (seven).
This season, she's averaging 23.2 points and 9.4 rebounds, with 201 blocked shots and was named AP Player of the Year, winner of the Wade Trophy, the Naismith Player of the Year and the WBCA's defensive player of the year.
Her effect on Baylor’s team hasn’t gone unnoticed either. Baylor, which last won a national championship in 2005, went 27-10 in her freshman year finally losing in the Final Four to UConn. In her sophomore season, the Lady Bears improved to a 34-3 record; however, they didn’t quite get as far as they did the previous season as they lost in the Elite Eight to Texas A&M, who they had previously beaten three times last year.
Brittney is the face of women’s basketball and will likely be the only collegian named to the US Olympic team for the London 2012 Games. But even with all that she’s done, for many, it took a national championship to finally validate her. Her coach understands this. “She’ll go down as one of the greatest post players in the history of the game,” Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said. “I'm so glad she got that ring.”
Brittney understands it, too, but tries to downplay it. “I think I need the ring, not to validate the player I am, but when I came here, I promised that we would get a national championship,” Griner said. “If we didn’t get it, I’d feel like I let down Baylor.”
She may have let down others, too. Many basketball fans expected them to win. Even President Obama picked them at the beginning of the Tournament.
Brittney first popped up on the national scene when she was in high school and a video of her doing about ten different dunks showed up on YouTube and went viral. Since then, there has been lots of… let’s just say, not very nice… talk about Griner — with her man-sized hands and feet and her very deep voice — on various social media sites and blogs. Kim Mulkey, Baylor’s head coach spoke on this at The Pepsi Center on Monday as she tried to paint a picture of Brittney, the college student. “She's very comfortable in her own skin,” said the coach. “She runs around campus on her [skate]board and her body painted at football games, doing back flips on the sideline.
“This is a human being, people. This is someone's child. She didn't wake up and say: ‘God, make me be 6-8.’ This child is as precious as they come when it comes to being a good person, a sweet kid, probably the easiest I've ever coached. Yet the stuff people say about her, the stuff people write about her [on social media sites], it’s got to stop. And it's constant. For her to handle it as well as she does, I just love the kid.”
Brittney apparently doesn’t let it bother her as much as it ticks off her coach. “I love being tall,” she said. “There wasn't really any teasing growing up. I guess they were smart enough not to tease the big kid. I like being different. The only thing that sucks: Can’t get that little sports car. I can’t go in the [shoe] store and say, ‘Hey, I need a 17.’ But I can go online. More options, more colors.”
But what about the online chatter?
“I go search my name sometimes and see what people say. [School officials] tell me not to, because people are kind of mean, but it doesn't bother me. I know things they say aren’t true. They are trying to get into my head and try to stop me. It's not going to work.”
Griner says that she goes on Twitter quite often because it gives her a chance to be herself. You’re not going to find her, though; she uses an alias. She is the opposite of Skylar Diggins, who picked up 18,000 followers after Notre Dame’s Final Four win over Connecticut. Griner has about 200 followers. “My name is not on Twitter,” she said. “All the Twitter accounts… griner42… they're all fake. I don't know who’s doing them, but they’re not me.”
Meanwhile, her teammates are very protective of her. “It’s ridiculous some of the things that are being said or written,” said Destiny Williams, a junior on the team. “The kid has become used to it. I think it frustrated her during her freshman year a little bit, but she's realized she has to let it go in one ear and out the other.
“I think she tries to represent all people who are different or want to be, but they’re afraid to. She’s the perfect role model for that… She loves being who she is. She's just a big kid. She loves candy. She loves bacon. She loves sweets and soda. This is who she is. I honestly think she loves being in her own skin, and we need more people like that.”