MEMPHIS — Freshman sensation Brittney Griner has grown up a lot this season — just ask Tennessee.
Griner scored 27 points and blocked 10 shots, leading fourth-seeded Baylor to a 77-62 win over the top-seeded Lady Vols on Saturday to advance to the NCAA tournament regional finals.
“She was the X factor,” said Tennessee coach Pat Summitt, whose team was taken out in the first round last season.
Baylor’s only other appearance in the round of eight was in 2005, the same year it won the national championship. The Lady Bears (26-9) will face either No. 2 seed Duke or 11th-seeded San Diego State on Monday night.
The Lady Vols’ loss spoiled the highly anticipated matchup between Tennessee and Connecticut, which could have happened in this year’s national semifinals. The Lady Vols, who lost in the first round last season, haven’t missed out on back-to-back Final Fours since 1993-94.
Tennessee (32-3) successfully limited the 6-foot-8 Griner in its 74-65 win over Baylor in the first game of the season but couldn’t do it again even with as many as four players on her at a time. Griner hit several shots while double-teamed or passed to an open Lady Bears teammate for an easy layup.
“You’re watching a phenom out here play above the rim,” Mulkey said. “That’s what needs to be written in every article from this day forward, because she’s such a sweet child as you can see.”
Griner had been somewhat tentative on offense since she was suspended for two games after throwing a punch against a Texas Tech player in early March. She was back to her dominant self on both ends of the court.
“I just knew I had to come out and play my game and go back to the old Brittney,” Griner said.
Griner’s 26 blocks in the NCAA tournament ranks her second in history. Duke’s Alison Bales holds the NCAA tournament record with 30 in 2006, and Connecticut’s Rebecca Lobo’s 22 now ranks third.
The teams went back and forth throughout the first half and early in the second, trading the lead 10 times and tying four times. With both 6-foot-6 Kelley Cain and 6-foot-3 Alyssia Brewer on the floor to guard Griner, Tennessee found some success inside and was up 55-50 with just under eight minutes left.
The Lady Vol orange-clad crowd fell silent as Griner hit back-to-back layups and had a three-point play as part of a 21-1 run as Tennessee’s defense unraveled.
Tennessee (32-3) turned to its shooters in desperation. Though Angie Bjorklund and Shekinna Stricklen managed to hit jumpers in traffic and knock down a few 3s in the first half, they missed left and right in the second half.
The Lady Vols managed to hit only 32.9 percent, only slightly better than their season-worst 32.8 percent against Stanford, and finished with 22 paint points. The Lady Vols allowed the Lady Bears 49.1 percent shooting — a season high for a Tennessee opponent — and 36 paint points.
“I can’t believe it. I’m just really excited that to get to the Elite Eight we had to go through the best, and the best in this region was Tennessee,” Baylor’s Morghan Medlock said.
Stricklen led Tennessee with 18 points, and Bjorklund added 12.
“I think anytime you play against a 6-8 player, it’s is going to be tough to shoot over her,” Bjorklund said. “At the same time, I thought when our posts did have the ball they did a good job. Going against her, we just needed to give the posts more touches.”
Tennessee fell to 23-5 in regional semifinal games.