No. 1 Baylor's 6-foot-8 Griner presents challenge
NEW YORK—St. John's assistant coaches held up a broom in practice last week trying to simulate Baylor's 6-foot-8 star Brittney Griner and her ability to block shots.
It didn't come close to the real thing.
Griner presents a unique challenge for opposing coaches when they try to prepare for No. 1 Baylor. It's almost impossible to mimic all that the junior phenom brings to the game on both ends of the court. Coaches have tried just about everything, yet few have been successful. She's been averaging 22.8 points, 10.7 rebounds and 4.9 blocks in just 30 minutes a game this season for the Lady Bears (10-0).
Geno Auriemma and No. 2 Connecticut (9-0) will get their chance to challenge Griner's height and wing span Sunday night when the Huskies visit Waco, Texas.
Auriemma may have the best advantage of any coach so far in trying to get his team ready for Griner. He coached her for two weeks this fall when she played on the U.S. women's basketball team during its European tour.
"You can't simulate exactly what she's able to do. You can't go out and find someone and say play like Brittney Griner plays," Auriemma said. "I think you just have go into the game and know that there are something she wants to try to do. Maybe you can limit some of those things, maybe you can't."
Tennessee thought it did a pretty good job on Griner when the Lady Vols played Baylor last month. After a quiet first half, she had 17 of her 26 points in the second when the Lady Bears rallied for the win.
Tennessee used a "profender" in practice to try and simulate what Griner can do on the defensive end. The movable basketball aid can act as a taller defender and at least equal Griner's height.
"They broke that out and we can't even see the rim, it's above the rim the hands on that thing," Tennessee center Vicki Baugh said. "It's just funny how we have to simulate her, you're not going to find a lot of people that can do the same things she can."
Tennessee coach Pat Summitt was impressed with Griner's ability to change so much on the defensive end.
"I've never seen someone who affects shots with people on the perimeter," the Hall of Fame coach said. "Our kids knowing she's in the lane it just kinda affects how you come off and look at the basket and she's not really guarding you. Just her presence in there, you kinda hesitate a little bit."
Summitt thought the only possibly player she had encountered that was similar to Griner was Russia basketball great Uljana Semjonova. The 7-footer dominated the international women's basketball scene in the 1970s and 80s.
"Ulya would be a comparison, that's for sure," Summitt said. "She didn't have the speed Griner does."
ESPN's NBA analyst Jeff Van Gundy will be broadcasting the game on Sunday night. He's been impressed with Griner's mobility for her size.
"It's like it used to be back when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar first came into the men's game," he said. "You remember in high school they had brooms in their hands for practice. You just can't simulate some things."
Van Gundy, who lives in Texas, was excited for the chance to see her live after watching her on TV and reading about her.
"Two-way players are impossible, that's why they are truly great, they impact the game on both ends of the floor," he said. "You see drivers pulling up a little more. I've watched her make some difficult turnaround jumpshots. You're going have to live with that."
St. John's did a decent job on Sunday in the Maggie Dixon Classic at Madison Square Garden. They held Griner to just 17 points and she only took eight shots. The Red Storm, whose tallest player on the court gave up 6 inches to Griner, constantly had two people on her daring other Baylor players to beat them.
"It's ridiculous," St. John's coach Kim Barnes Arico said. "She's going to put her hands up and it's over. Sometimes people are that big, but awkward. She has great hands, even free throws. Who that big can hit free throws? She can make a foul-line shot and it's consistent."
Nobody knows better how to play against Griner than teammate Destiny Williams, who constantly goes against her in practice.
"She makes it challenging, especially with her wing spin," she said. "She defends shots and it's hard to rebound over her or even be boxed out. She's so long. Not only can she post up, she can also shoot a 12-to-15 footer and you have to respect that. If you don't close out on her, she'll take it to the hole. She's a very athletic post and it's hard to guard her."
Williams laughed when asked how many times she'd been blocked in practice.
"You have to expect it, she's 6-8. She makes you alter it," Williams said. "A lot of the opposing post people are scared and don't want to get embarrassed by getting their shot blocked. I'd hate to be on offense against her. She intimidates people a lot. I'd rather play with her than against her."