By Jeffrey Swindoll
Last year, the Lady Bears lost someone many called the ultimate post player. Brittney Griner entered the 2013 WNBA draft, marking the end of an era, but the beginning of another in Baylor women’s basketball.
Griner holds all-time records with 748 blocks, 18 dunks and 3,283 points. On paper, Griner was a massive mismatch against all opponents due mainly to her size. The Lady Bears’ glory days for the past few years are strongly connected to how she contributed to her team.
When playing defense or offense, Griner posed problems for every team. It made no difference who Baylor played. Griner was an automatic advantage.
“You have to play offensively differently against Baylor when Griner is in the game than you do against any other team in the country,” ESPN analyst Rebecca Lobo said.
That was a huge asset for Baylor, and many teams basically did not have a choice against her.
“She really defensively changes the whole game,” Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw said. “Every time you drive in there, no matter who is guarding you, she’s going to be at the rim to block a shot.”
Without Griner, the Lady Bears were certainly in for a rude awakening, facing the reality that they will no longer have the nation’s MVP on their team. Griner would be missed on both ends of the floor, not only for her size and talent, but also her experience.
Still one of the top 10 teams in the country, the Lady Bears have held their own without Griner, but that came with some growing pains.
The Lady Bears were greatly dependent on one player a season ago, and toward the beginning of the season they seemed complacent with that same attitude, depending heavily on senior guard Odyssey Sims to take the load.
“I think we have size, and I think we have athleticism, but what we don’t have is experience,” head coach Kim Mulkey said. “There’s not another player on our team, besides Odyssey, with experience. It’s like a whole set of babies in there.”
The worries of how the Lady Bears would hold up without Griner seem like a distant afterthought now, but they did have a few hiccups this season that need ed to be faced.
Mulkey said her team, at times, would panic in tough road games — against teams such as West Virginia and Kansas — becoming timid under pressure and often looking for Sims to shoot the important shots, if not all of them.
“I can’t sit there and make them think Odyssey Sims is going to bail us out of every game,” Mulkey said.
However, they seem to have rectified their bad habits from the first half of the season. Players carrying on the torch and freshmen stepping up their game have enabled Baylor to excel even after losing Griner.
“I can name a handful [of teams] that are in the top 15 now that aren’t the same team as they were last year,” Mulkey said. “You’ve got to keep at a level that you would consider to be one of the elite programs. You’ve just got to keep reloading.”
The Lady Bears average more rebounds, points and overall field goals per game than they did with Griner in the 2012-13 season.
Senior guard Odyssey Sims and freshman Nina Davis have answered their mission bells this season.
Sims leads the nation in scoring and her importance to her team make her an immediate candidate for the league’s MVP.
Davis is Baylor’s shining freshman product. Currently on a very impressive streak of seven-straight games with a double-double, Davis is an example how much effort can accomplish even with inexperience and lack of size advantage.
Perhaps Davis’ most beneficial contribution to the team is the testament she is to fellow freshmen and incoming players as well, that mental preparation and discipline can go a long way in their development as a player. She is an example to the rest of the freshmen on the team, and they have fed off of her success.
“I’ve enjoyed watching their confidence grow,” Mulkey said.
Griner’s exit from the team forced Baylor to be more versatile and multidimensional on the attack and defensively. She served her purpose and solidified Baylor as one of the nation’s elite women’s basketball programs.
Now it is up to the next generation to continue to make Baylor women’s basketball the great program that it was with Griner, and they have done their job so far.