- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 30, 2011

DALLAS (AP) - Brittney Griner has two more chances to get back to the NCAA Final Four and win a national championship at Baylor. The 6-foot-8 All-American will have plenty of familiar faces around her.

After getting to the national semifinals when Griner was a freshman last year, the Lady Bears (34-3) came up one game short of that this season even while setting a school record for wins, winning the Big 12 regular season and tournament titles, and being a No. 1 NCAA seed for the first time.

“We’re young. A lot of learning to do,” said Griner, among seven sophomores on a roster with only one senior who played significant minutes. “The future’s bright for us. We just gotta get in the gym, get everybody on the same page, get everybody mentally tough.”

Baylor had beaten Texas A&M three times this season, but lost 58-46 to its Big 12 rival in the Dallas Regional championship game Tuesday night. The Aggies (31-5), with two seniors and three juniors in their starting lineup, are going to the Final Four for the first time.

“We’ve had a great year,” coach Kim Mulkey said. “But we’ve elevated our program to a level where we want to be disappointed. You want to see kids cry.”

Mulkey has 298 victories in her 11 seasons at Baylor, which had never been to the NCAA tournament and was the Big 12’s worst team when she arrived. The Lady Bears have made it to the NCAA round of 16 six times the last eight years, and won the 2005 national championship.

“She’ll be back in next year. Don’t worry about my girl Kim,” said Texas A&M coach Gary Blair, an assistant coach at Louisiana Tech in the early 1980s when Mulkey was the point guard and they won two national championships. “They’re that good.”

The Lady Bears do have Griner, the dominating center that Blair and so many other coaches have declared the best player in the country.

Griner averaged 23 points and 7.8 rebounds this season and led the NCAA in blocked shots again with 170, pushing her career total to 393.

Brooklyn Pope and Destiny Williams, also sophomore post players, just completed their debut seasons at Baylor after transferring from other schools. Starting freshman point guard Odyssey Sims averaged 13.1 points while shooting 48 percent overall and 45 percent on 3-pointers.

The only senior who played much was Melissa Jones, the gritty starting guard who played the Big 12 and NCAA tournaments without full vision in her right eye after banging her head going for a loose ball last month. She had 13 points and seven rebounds in her final game.

“I’m going to miss M.J. We’re all going to miss her,” Griner said. “I wish I had some more years with her.”

Griner can anticipate the return of guard Shanay Washington, a 32-game starter as a freshman last year. Washington sustained a season-ending knee injury in practice only five games into this season.

In the season finale, Griner scored 20 points with nine rebounds. But she made only 6 of 18 shots from the field, including a missed dunk attempt. She was coming off a career-high 40 points two days earlier against Green Bay that followed 30 points her previous game.

The Lady Bears shot only 31 percent (15 of 48) and had 20 turnovers.

“The hardest part is losing, but then you evaluate if you lost to an A&M team that shot lights out and they were unstoppable and they were just awesome, you almost can handle that a little bit better,” Mulkey said.

Texas A&M led the entire game despite shooting only 34 percent in its lowest-scoring game of the season. Newly minted All-American Danielle Adams scored only six points, all after halftime.

“Hopefully they’ll remember how it feels in that locker room,” Mulkey said. “I know they remembered how it felt last year when we beat Duke to get to the Final Four and that was a happy locker room. And this year it’s not so happy. But you want them to remember it all.”

Along with three wins over Texas A&M this season, Baylor also beat Notre Dame and Tennessee, the team the Irish beat this week for a Final Four berth. The Lady Bears lost by a point in November at Connecticut, which could be a three-time defending national champion when it plays in Waco next season.

“We’ll take a lot (from this season). Not just from the NCAA tournament, but we’ll take a lot from the non-conference opponents,” Mulkey said. “We played all the top teams out there. And we will get better. You can only get better if you play the best.”

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