By Doug Feinberg, AP Basketball Writer —
HARTFORD, Conn. — Brittney Griner and top-ranked Baylor withstood their first serious challenge in two months. Coach Kim Mulkey hopes it will prepare them for the important games ahead.
“This was a great game for women’s basketball,” Mulkey said Monday night after her team’s 76-70 victory over No. 3 Connecticut. “It’s not going to be a game that we get on the plane and celebrate we just beat UConn. It gave us a gauge of what to expect. It will help improve (UConn) and help improve my team.”
After building a seven-point lead in the second half, Connecticut had no answer for Griner. Then again, few teams have during her stellar college career.
The All-America center scored 21 of her 25 points after halftime, including the 3,000th of her career, to help extend Baylor’s winning streak to 23 games. She became the eighth women’s player in Division I history to reach the milestone, doing it on two free throws with 1:05 left.
Despite the loss, Huskies coach Geno Auriemma thought the game was a lot more valuable to his team than a potential Big East blowout.
“Playing a game like this with a month before the NCAA tournament, I can’t think of anything better to do at this point of the season,” he said. “Absolutely it’s going to help. There’s no way it can’t help you.”
Baylor (25-1) went 40-0 last season en route to the school’s second national championship, and its only loss this season came in Hawaii against Stanford in November. Griner and her talented teammates hadn’t really been challenged since, with no opponent coming within single digits.
But when UConn built a seven-point lead in the second half, the Lady Bears were ready.
“It’s always good to give yourself a gauge of what you need to work on,” Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said. “I told them at halftime, it’s been a long time since we’ve had to execute on offense. We’re so athletic and so good and so talented, we just go play basketball. But against good teams who play great defensively, you must execute. And we needed to do some things better in the second half.”
Griner and fellow preseason All-American Odyssey Sims had a tough first half, combining to go 3 for 19 from the field. They responded after halftime, though.
“Just got more aggressive,” Griner said. “Coach told me I need to be more aggressive in the paint, go to the goal, so that’s what I did.”
Baylor, which has already clinched the Big 12 regular-season title, led 54-53 midway through the second half before Griner took over. She scored seven points during a quick burst, and her putback made it 67-61 with 5 minutes left.
UConn (24-2) rallied behind Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis to cut it to 67-65, but Griner answered with a putback. Then she hit the two milestone free throws 1:30 later to make it 73-67, all but sealing the win.
Griner had missed key free throws down the stretch when she was a sophomore and her team lost at Connecticut by one point. She wasn’t going to let that happen again, beating the only team in the country that she didn’t have a winning record against.
“It meant a lot to me to get it on the free throw line,” Griner said, smiling. “Last time I was here I was horrible, my free throws were horrible.”
The game, hyped all season, lived up to the buzz — even though neither coach wanted to put too much emphasis on this one, knowing there will be a lot more at stake if the schools meet again in the NCAA tournament.
UConn led by three at halftime and expanded the advantage to 41-34 after Griner was called for a flagrant foul for grabbing Stefanie Dolson in the backcourt after the 6-foot-8 center had turned the ball over.
That just seemed to fuel Griner and the Lady Bears, who scored the next eight points to take a 42-41 lead with 14:03 left.
“Coach told me to play through it, so that’s what I did,” Griner said.
The teams went shot for shot over the next 5 minutes, with neither able to gain more than a four-point lead.
Griner answered a 3-pointer by Dolson with a three-point play of her own that started the key run. She then hit a hook shot to give Baylor a 59-56 lead with 8 minutes left.
Griner, who came into the game averaging 19 points, 7.7 blocks and 7.3 rebounds against UConn, passed LaToya Thomas of Mississippi State to move into eighth on the women’s career scoring list. The last player to reach 3,000 points was Connecticut forward Maya Moore, who attended Monday night’s game.
Mosqueda-Lewis finished with 26 points and a career-high 15 rebounds to lead the Huskies.
“She was phenomenal,” Auriemma said.
UConn jumped out to a quick 12-2 lead much to the delight of the sellout crowd of 16,294 that was whipped into a frenzy with every Huskies basket. The Lady Bears rallied behind Griner, who was more of a passer than a scorer over the first 20 minutes. She’d catch the ball and quickly draw three UConn defenders before dishing it down low for an easy layup for a teammate.
“We’re a team that has seen it all,” Mulkey said. “We’re a team that has seen every defense imaginable.”