Griffin leads Sooners into Kansas

Oklahoma's Nicole Griffin has a problem many people wish they had: She can eat and eat, but it's really hard for her to put on weight. Which would not be much of an issue if she wasn't playing center in Division I basketball.

Since she is, Griffin has done what she can to "muscle" up. At 6 feet, 6 inches, she's still quite lean, but weight training has helped. And she looks at the bright side.

"I've gotten used to it," Griffin said. "I eat all the time, and it doesn't matter. I've been like this my whole life, and nothing is going to change. I wish I could get bigger, but I think I have it a lot better than people who always have to lose weight."

Griffin and the No. 22 Sooners head into Sunday’s game against Kansas (ESPN2, 2:30 p.m. ET) about as irritable as someone on a constant diet. Thursday, they fell from second place to third in the Big 12 with a 72-68 loss at home to No. 24 Iowa State. The Sooners watched the Cyclones go to the line 34 times, making 27 free throws. Four of the Sooners starters fouled out of the game, and the other -- Griffin -- finished with four fouls.

A junior out of Milwaukee, Griffin has played well of late, averaging 14.2 points and 5.6 rebounds in her last five games and was named Big 12 co-player of the week Monday. For the season, her averages are 11.5 ppg and 4.7 rpg.

"She's never going to put a lot of bulk on," Sooners coach Sherri Coale said. "So you work on things like intensity and ball security.

"Another thing you have to stress with players like her is keeping a low center of gravity, because with her length it's so easy for her to get knocked off balance. She has to really play with her hips low and feet wide. She's gotten tons better."

Griffin and the Sooners have six more regular-season games, two of which will be against the Jayhawks. Kansas (15-8, 6-6) is tied for fifth in the 10-team Big 12. The Jayhawks are trying to solidify their case for the program's second consecutive NCAA tournament berth after an 11-year absence from the Big Dance.

While Oklahoma had a very frustrating game this past week, Kansas pulled a needed victory out of the fire. The Jayhawks trailed TCU by 23 points at halftime Wednesday in Fort Worth, Texas. But KU rallied for a 76-75 victory, led by senior guard Monica Engelman's career-high 26 points. That kept TCU winless in conference play in the Horned Frogs' first season in the Big 12.

It was a victory Kansas had to have, and the Jayhawks' second huge comeback of this Big 12 season. On Jan. 30, they trailed Iowa State by 18 with just less than nine minutes remaining, and were still down 14 with about five minutes left. But the Jayhawks forced overtime, where they won 78-75.

Sunday is KU's "Play4Kay" game at Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence, Kan. The Jayhawks have defeated the Sooners just once in their previous 16 meetings, dating back to 2000. That win was last March, a victory that was crucial on Kansas' résumé for making the NCAA tournament.

While no coach, of course, will publicly say it's a race for runner-up behind Baylor this season in the Big 12, the Lady Bears are expected to go unbeaten in league play for the second year in a row.

But second place -- currently occupied by 9-4 Iowa State -- remains up for grabs. Oklahoma is 8-4; Texas Tech is 8-5.

Like many teams, the Sooners (18-6 overall) have been seriously affected by injuries. They lost post players Kaylon Williams (Achilles' tendon) and Lyndsey Cloman (back) before the season began. Then guards Maddie Manning and Whitney Hand both were lost to ACL injuries in November and December, respectively.

So players such as Griffin, who averaged 5.7 points and 3.9 rebounds last season, had to step forward.

"She doesn't have naturally soft hands, but she's improved dramatically because she's really worked on it," Coale said. "You do things like one-hand catches and different-sized ball tosses; just lots of repetition.

"[Kaylon] Williams may have been our most improved player coming into the season, and we lost her before we ever got started. That would have been a really nice rotation to have with Nicole. So instead, she had to figure out that she really can play hard for 30 minutes or more; she'd never seen herself as that type of player."

Griffin has averaged 28.4 minutes this season; 29.6 in conference play.

"She had to get through that mental hurdle of what her capacity was," Coale said. "She’s become reliable. Her confidence has soared. Now, she wants the ball.

In the past, she wasn't sure she could make something happen when she caught it. After she put in the work, she knew something good could happen."