- Associated Press - Thursday, March 17, 2011

WACO, TEXAS (AP) - Brittney Griner has already had an impact on women’s basketball like few players before her.

The 6-foot-8 Griner can dunk, rebound, block shots and alter games with her imposing presence in the lane. Yet as dominating as she has been in her two seasons for the Baylor Lady Bears, she isn’t so sure she has lived up to the billing.

“I don’t think I’m as good as what everybody says I am,” Griner said. “I think I’m alright.”

Forgive her opponents, and even her own teammates, if they disagree.

Baylor has already been to a Final Four with Griner, making it last year when she was a freshman on a team that had lost its top four scorers from the previous season. This year, the Lady Bears were Big 12 regular season and tournament champions and are a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament for the first time.

“I think she doesn’t realize how good she can be,” teammate Melissa Jones said. “I think she has maybe that thought in her mind that people say she has all this potential, and I think maybe that just sticks out to her because she’s like I’ve done this and I can do so much more.”

Griner wouldn’t mind the chance to make a few 3-pointers now and then, sort of a women’s version of Dirk Nowitzki, the 7-foot perennial NBA All-Star for the Dallas Mavericks with a flare for clutch long-range shooting. Or doing anything else that helps her team.

“I want to shoot it better,” Griner said, then references herself in third person. “How everybody knows if she gets the ball deep in the paint, she’s going to score, or if she doesn’t score, she’s going to get fouled, I have to be able to have that same reaction if we need that shot from 3, put it in her hands and she’ll make it.”

The Lady Bears (31-2) play the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament at home, starting Sunday against SWAC champion Prairie View (21-11). If they win both of those games, they advance to play in Dallas, only about 100 miles from campus.

West Virginia (23-9) and Houston (26-5) play in the other first-round NCAA game Sunday at the Ferrell Center, where Baylor is 19-0 this season. The two winners play Tuesday night.

After bursting onto the national scene as a freshman with her dunks and an NCAA single-season record 223 blocked shots, Griner expanded her range this season. She got more comfortable farther from the rim taking mid-range shots, though she had five career dunks before she even attempted a 3-pointer. She made one of her two long shots in the final regular-season home game March 2, a victory over Missouri that clinched the Big 12 title.

“I think she has to know how good she is, but I don’t think she allows herself to think she’s any better than anybody else,” coach Kim Mulkey said. “I think that’s her personality. I think that’s her upbringing. You have confidence about you inside but you never allow a cockiness to come across on the outside.”

Griner, who is averaging 22.6 points, 7.8 rebounds and 4.5 blocks a game this season, is a co-captain with Jones, the starting guard and only senior who plays significant minutes for Baylor.

Amazingly, Griner didn’t play organized basketball until she was in ninth grade, when she was already about 6-4. She learned to dunk by the end of her sophomore season at Houston’s Nimitz High and became a slamming YouTube sensation long before getting to Baylor as still a very raw talent.

“As a freshman, I think she just relied totally on her athletic ability,” Jones said, chuckling at the thought of how good that was. “This year, she’s focused more on thinking and where she need to place herself.”

Jones has watched Griner being “a lot more strategic” in where she is on the court, to alter or block shots on defense with her nearly 7 1/2-foot wingspan, or setting up for plays and shooting on the offensive end.

“It’s hard to teach that,” Jones said. “For her to already come this far, it’s just exciting to see where she will go next.”

On Interstate 35 north of Waco is a billboard that features a larger-than-life image of Griner looking over her shoulder while flexing her right arm that is cradling a basketball.

Griner constantly draws plenty of attention in person, too, even when trying to hang out like any other 20-year-old college student going to the movies or the mall. Rarely does Griner go out in public without being asked for an autograph or to pose for a picture _ and she tries to oblige every request.

“She doesn’t do it because she feels she has to, she does it because she wants to,” Mulkey said. “She’s just a soft kid and a tender person in a big body.”

A big kid who wants to win a national championship, and get a reward from her coach if the Lady Bears win their second title in seven seasons.

“I hit a 3 in a game, so I’m starting to feel that maybe I can persuade coach to let me shoot it a little bit more,” Griner said. “I want a 3-point play. She said she will give it to me if we win a national championship.”

And that’s no inside joke.

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