HARTFORD, Conn. — It had been a while since Brittney Griner and Baylor faced a true test on the court.
The top-ranked Lady Bears and their 6-foot-8 star passed a tough one Monday night, rallying to beat No. 3 Connecticut 76-70 in a women’s basketball showdown that certainly lived up to its billing.
Griner scored 21 of her 25 points in the second half, including the 3,000th of her career, to extend Baylor’s winning streak to 23 games. The reigning AP player of the year became the eighth women’s player in Division I history to reach the milestone, doing it on two free throws with 1:05 left.
“Just got more aggressive,” Griner said. “Coach told me I need to be more aggressive in the paint, go to the goal, so that’s what I did.”
Baylor (25-1) went 40-0 last season en route to the school’s second national championship, and its only loss this season came in Hawaii against Stanford back in November. Griner and her talented teammates hadn’t really been challenged since, with no opponent coming within single digits.
But when UConn built a seven-point lead in the second half, the Lady Bears were ready.
“It’s always good to give yourself a gauge of what you need to work on,” Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said. “I told them at halftime, it’s been a long time since we’ve had to execute on offense. We’re so athletic and so good and so talented, we just go play basketball. But against good teams who play great defensively, you must execute. And we needed to do some things better in the second half.”
Griner and fellow preseason All-America Odyssey Sims had a tough first half, combining to go 3 for 19 from the field. They responded after halftime, though.
Baylor, which has already clinched the Big 12 regular-season title, led 54-53 midway through the second half before Griner took over. She scored seven points during a quick burst, and her putback made it 67-61 with 5 minutes left.
UConn (24-2) rallied behind Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis to cut it to 67-65, but Griner answered with a putback. Then she hit the two milestone free throws 1:30 later to make it 73-67, all but sealing the win.
Griner had missed key free throws down the stretch when she was a sophomore and her team lost at Connecticut by one point. She wasn’t going to let that happen again, beating the only team in the country that she didn’t have a winning record against.
“It meant a lot to me to get it on the free throw line,” Griner said, smiling. “Last time I was here I was horrible, my free throws were horrible.”
The game, hyped up all season, lived up to the buzz — even though neither coach wanted to put too much emphasis on this one, knowing there will be a lot more at stake if the schools meet again in the NCAA tournament.
“This was a great game for women’s basketball,” Mulkey said. “But this game is not going to knock Geno (Auriemma) out of a No. 1 seed, not going to make us a guaranteed overall No. 1 seed. It’s not going to be a game that we get on the plane and celebrate we just beat UConn. It gave us a gauge of what to expect. It will help improve his team and help improve my team.”
UConn led by three at halftime and expanded the advantage to 41-34 after Griner was called for a flagrant foul for grabbing Stefanie Dolson in the backcourt after the 6-foot-8 center had turned the ball over.
That just seemed to fuel Griner and the Lady Bears, who scored the next eight points to take a 42-41 lead with 14:03 left.
“Coach told me to play through it, so that’s what I did,” Griner said.
The teams went shot for shot over the next 5 minutes, with neither able to gain more than a four-point lead.
Griner answered a 3-pointer by Dolson with a three-point play of her own that started the key run. She then hit a hook shot to give Baylor a 59-56 lead with 8 minutes left.
Griner, who came into the game averaging 19 points, 7.7 blocks and 7.3 rebounds against UConn, passed LaToya Thomas of Mississippi State to move into eighth on the women’s career scoring list. The last player to reach 3,000 points was Connecticut forward Maya Moore, who was in attendance Monday night.
Mosqueda-Lewis finished with 26 points to lead the Huskies.
“We’re just not good enough yet to beat these guys tonight,” Auriemma said.
UConn jumped out to a quick 12-2 lead much to the delight of the sellout crowd of 16,294 that was whipped into a frenzy on every Huskies basket. The Lady Bears rallied behind Griner, who was more of a passer than a scorer over the first 20 minutes. She’d catch the ball and quickly draw three UConn defenders before dishing it down low for an easy layup for a teammate.
“We’re a team that has seen it all,” Mulkey said. “We’re a team that has seen every defense imaginable.”
The Huskies opened a 27-18 advantage with 3:30 left in the first half before Baylor scored the next eight points. Mosqueda-Lewis was fouled just before the half to make it 29-26 at the break.
“As well as we played defensively in the first half, it should have been a 15-point game instead of a three-point game. That changes everything,” Auriemma said. “We knew in the locker room they weren’t going to get 26 in the second half.”
Griner scored four points in the first half and Sims had only two as she missed nine of her 10 shots — including her first seven.
“Brittney and Odyssey are two of the finest to ever play the game. But they don’t win it by themselves,” Mulkey said. “We went on a run with Niya Johnson on the floor. We went on a run with Alexis Prince on the floor. Those kids are freshmen that can play.”
The game capped a weeklong celebration of games in honor of former N.C. State coach Kay Yow, who died in 2009 after a long battle with cancer. Baylor wore pink sneakers while UConn had the same color adorning its uniforms. Mulkey wore a pink jacket and leather pants.