BOWLING GREEN, Ohio (AP) - Brittney Griner’s pursuit of a national title begins in earnest again this weekend - in an unexpected locale.
Griner and top-seeded Baylor were sent to Bowling Green for the start of the NCAA tournament, but the 6-foot-8 star is taking the trip in stride. In fact, she has something in common with the northwest Ohio school that’s hosting first- and second-round games this year.
“Brittney Griner’s the most excited because she thinks the university’s named after her,” Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said. “She sees `BG’ everywhere you go, so that fired her up.”
Griner will be the center of attention Sunday when Baylor (34-0) opens the tournament against 16th-seeded UC Santa Barbara. The Lady Bears haven’t lost since bowing out in a regional final last season. They’re the No. 1 overall seed this year after outscoring opponents by 27 points per game during this undefeated run.
The season can end only two ways now. Either Baylor will win the title and become the first NCAA team to win 40 games - or the Lady Bears will fall short of their goal.
“I guess the pressure would be at the beginning of the season when you’re ranked high and you haven’t played any games and you’ve got to prove yourself,” Griner said. “Right now, no. No pressure really.”
Griner is averaging 23.3 points and 9.4 rebounds per game this season. She’s also the Big 12’s career leader in blocked shots despite being only a junior.
“Defense is my favorite part of the game,” she said. “Blocking shots - it’s my favorite thing to do, even over dunking.”
The Gauchos of UCSB (17-15) are well aware of what they’re up against. Guard Emilie Johnson’s favorite movie is `Miracle’ - the Disney film about the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team - and she watched it again recently.
“My roommate Kelsey (Adrian) is on the team, and she was making fun of me for watching it again,” Johnson said. “It’s just inspiration for us, being a 16th seed.”
UCSB was 8-13 at one point and finished sixth in the Big West before winning the league tournament.
As an underdog, UCSB could have some support from the crowd, especially since the game isn’t anywhere near Baylor’s campus. The Lady Bears played all four of their NCAA tournament games in their home state of Texas last season, but they won’t be there at all this time.
“You’re always surprised,” Mulkey said. “I don’t mind being here, I just feel for our fans. I wish that our fans could follow us, and it’s just too expensive and too far for our fans to travel.”
Baylor, of course, can embarrass opponents without necessarily trying to, and that’s what’s expected in this tournament, at least at the start. The Lady Bears reached the Final Four when Griner was a freshman and lost to eventual champion Texas A&M last year. The emergence of sophomore guard Odyssey Sims has made them even more formidable.
“Listen, Brittney Griner to me is probably going to go down in history as the greatest to ever play the game at her position,” Mulkey said. “But Brittney Griner is so dependent on point guards and on wing players. She can’t dribble it, pass it to herself. She can’t do all those things. Guard play becomes really, really critical.”
The Lady Bears won their only national title in 2005, and now they’re the pick of many - including President Barack Obama - to win another. But after last season, they aren’t taking any game for granted.
“Anybody can get upset, anybody can go home at any given time,” Sims said. “Everybody is going to play hard and if you don’t play your best you get sent home. We are going to do our best to win every game and go as far as we need to and hopefully get to our main goal.