<
>

Baylor, Griner deny Aggies' upset bid

If any team really should have a shot at stopping what has become a Baylor locomotive, you figured it was Texas A&M.

After all, the teams meet at least twice a season, many of the players are Texas natives who've known each other for years, and coaches Kim Mulkey and Gary Blair have shared roots that go back three decades to Louisiana Tech.

So there's a deep sense of familiarity that makes this matchup seem like it inevitably will be close. And the Aggies -- unlike the other teams in the Big 12 and most of those across the nation -- can reasonably believe they really are good enough to not only hang with Baylor, but actually win.

However, that belief -- and a career night from Texas A&M's Tyra White -- wasn't enough Monday at the Ferrell Center to stop the No. 1 team. Baylor's fans got a little scare, but the players themselves never seemed panicked. It surely helps them to know that once the Brittney Griner wrecking ball has broken through a wall, there's no stopping it from knocking down the building.

Baylor prevailed 67-58 over No. 5 Texas A&M, as the Big 12's two best teams salvaged a women's Big Monday doubleheader on ESPN2 for viewers who might have gotten drowsy watching No. 2 UConn go through the formality of overpowering Oklahoma in the night's first game.

Considering how well UConn played -- and the fact that the Huskies are the only team to beat Baylor this season -- the doubleheader had the feel of a kind of dress rehearsal for March.

The Sooners are third in the Big 12 standings but simply don't have the weapons to be in the nation's true elite this season. Of course, Baylor and Texas A&M do, and so it's expected we'll see this Lone Star State matchup a third time: in the Big 12 tournament final in Kansas City next month.

The question will be: What else can Texas A&M do to beat Baylor? On Jan. 30 at College Station, Texas, the Aggies pushed hard but still fell 63-60 in what was, for Griner, an average game. She had 17 points and 12 rebounds that day, while freshman guard Odyssey Sims led Baylor with 25 points.

On Monday, the Ferrell Center was packed for the second time in three days. On Saturday, the Baylor faithful watched their team demolish Texas, which served as sort of an appetizer for Monday's main course.

Earlier in the day, Texas A&M's Danielle Adams had been named Big 12 player of the week, largely because of her school-record 40-point performance Saturday against Kansas. It would have been just as easy, though, to give that award to Griner. Not that it matters; Griner seems a lock to win Big 12 player of the year honors. And not that even that really matters to her, because she doesn't seem at all interested in any hardware except team trophies.

The first half Monday was far from Baylor at its best, but the Aggies helped make that so with their defense. Karla Gilbert, a 6-foot-5 freshman center, battled Griner inside, and she got help from her teammates … and the Baylor guards. On too many possessions, Baylor needed to be reminded that for this team, the right answer is almost always the easiest one. Which is why Mulkey, who is a very astute X's and O's coach, was reduced to belting out the same thing that people who'd never drawn up a play in their lives were yelling: "GET THE BALL TO GRINER!"

It worked, even if it took longer than it usually does against most foes. That's because A&M isn't "most" teams. The Aggies weren't at their best Monday, either. White, who always has had flashes of being a spectacular player, had a career-high 29 points on 10-of-16 shooting. But on this night, she actually needed to shoot more … while the backcourt of Sydney Colson and Sydney Carter, who were a combined 4-of-22 from the field, should have shot less.

Then there was Adams, who battled some foul trouble and wasn't sharp from the field, either, at 4-for-15. Gilbert fouled out, and the time Adams had to spend trying to disrupt Griner no doubt took some toll on Adams' offense, as she finished with nine points.

Because Griner has gotten better at everything Mulkey said she wanted her to work on as a sophomore -- strength, passing, poise -- the idea that foes really have any hope of neutralizing the 6-8 center is pretty much preposterous.

Griner had three points at halftime, but she showed absolutely no signs of frustration. The emotional growth Griner has displayed on the court this season is as impressive as her improved muscle and skills.

As mentioned, the right stuff didn't kick in for Baylor as soon as Mulkey would have liked it to. But it eventually did. In the second half, Griner worked even harder to make herself the best target. She put the ball on the floor in a power move to the basket. She beat defenders down the court for transition buckets that clearly signaled a momentum change in Baylor's favor.

She ended up with 26 points and 12 rebounds, while her defensive presence was a key reason Texas A&M shot just 31 percent from the floor. Sims had 22 points, Destiny Williams had seven points and nine rebounds, and senior Melissa Jones was her typical "right-place-at-the-right-time" self.

Both Griner and UConn's Maya Moore had isolation cameras dedicated to them in Monday's games, and both players put on spotlight-worthy performances.

But if someone wants to make a training video of what it looks like to flat-out bust your tail every second you're on the floor, they need to put an iso cam on Jones. Her six points and nine rebounds Monday were not all of her story; the stats never are with Jones. It also was how she clearly kept showing her teammates with her actions: "Uh, guys, remember who we are and how we got here."

And after coming away with its 24th victory, Baylor looks as if it's not ever really going to forget that.

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.