On Tuesday night, fans at the Stroh Center in Bowling Green, Ohio, witnessed what few others have had the opportunity to see in person.
For much of the first half, top-seeded Baylor showed it is more than it’s one-of-a-kind star, Brittney Griner. More than 11 minutes into the game, Griner had yet to score, and the Lady Bears still held a double-digit lead against Florida.
However, less than two minutes into the second half, Griner showed why she is women’s college basketball’s most fearsome, dominant player.
After a pair of layups to start the half, Griner’s dunk in traffic electrified the crowd and sent No. 1 Baylor (36-0) on its way to the Sweet 16 with a 76-57 win against ninth-seeded Florida (20-13).
“I encouraged her to be more powerful to the rim, even if she misses a dunk,” Baylor head coach Kim Mulkey said after the game. “Because that kind of effort spreads to her teammates.”
After an Odyssey Sims missed three-point shot, Kimetria Hayden fed Griner inside for the one-handed slam.
With the dunk, her first of the season and sixth of her career, Griner became just the second woman to dunk in a NCAA tournament game.
Tennessee’s Candace Parker is the only other woman to dunk in a NCAA tournament game, having done so against Army in 2005. Griner is now one dunk shy of Parker’s career record of seven.
“I caught it. I palmed it, and I just don’t even know, I threw it in,” Griner said of the dunk.
Despite double-teams from Florida’s frontcourt throughout the night, Griner, a unanimous All-Big 12 selection, finished with 25 points and nine rebounds. She also added six blocks, running her season total to an NCAA-leading 184 blocks.
Mulkey, the back-to-back Big 12 Coach of the Year, will be leading her team to its fourth consecutive Sweet 16 appearance. Last season, Baylor lost 58-46 to eventual-champion Texas A&M in the Elite 8.
For Baylor, its “unfinished business” redemption tour marches on to Des Moines. There, the Lady Bears will face fourth-seeded Georgia Tech.
Florida has its season end in the second round for the second consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament. The Gators lost to another top-seed, Connecticut, in the second round of the 2009 NCAA Tournament.
For much of the first half, Florida played the 6-foot-8 Griner as well as possible. Switching between a 2-3 zone and man-to-man defense, the Gators were able to consistently keep two defenders on her.
Having to focus so much attention on one player is what makes Griner and Baylor such a tough matchup, Florida coach Brenda Mock Kirkpatrick said on the Gators Radio Network.
“She is tough to defend and what has to happen is we have to take two of our defenders, take someone off of their four player, to try to counter what she can do,” Kirkpatrick said. “That’s probably the biggest thing she does is you can’t play them five-on-five. You’ve got to do something to give her special attention.”
The special attention on Griner allowed for the rest of a talented Baylor lineup to add their share of contributions. All five Baylor starters scored in double figures.
Odyssey Sims, a unanimous First Team All-Big 12 selection along with Griner, added 14 points. Destiny Williams pulled down a game-high 13 rebounds to go with her 11 points, the game’s only double-double contributor.
The biggest difference in the game was the two teams’ ability to get to the free throw line. While the Gators shot just 7-12 from the foul line, Baylor made 24 of its 33 attempts.
“Throughout the game, we didn’t do a good job of playing defense without fouling,” Kirkpatrick said.
Despite the large free throw disparity and shooting just 23-70 from the field, the Gators were able to scratch and claw and keep the game close against a Baylor team that has an unmatched ability to throttle opposing teams.
With the 19-point loss, Florida became just the ninth team this season to stay within 20 points of Baylor. In its 36 wins this season, Baylor has beaten opponents by double-digits in all but five games.
“We set the tone early that we were not going to go away,” Kirkpatrick said. ““We’re fighters. That is one thing that we’re going to do.”
Azania Stewart led Florida offensively in her final game in a Gators uniform. Coming into the game, Stewart spoke of playing similar talents as Griner in international play.
Her experienced showed as she scored a team-high 14 points despite picking up four fouls in the battle against Griner.
Fellow seniors Deana Allen and Lanita Bartley added 13 and 10 points, respectively.
Jordan Jones, who had made a three-pointer in each of her last 15 games, finished 0-3 from the three-point line and scored just two points.
Ndidi Madu, the only player with NCAA tournament experience prior to Sunday other than Stewart, came off the bench to score two points in her final game for the Gators.
“We’re really going to miss those five seniors,” Kirkpatrick said. “They are great kids.”
Follow Gator Country writer Phillip Heilman on Twitter at phillip_heilman.