Sports

Baylor Bears women haunted by loss to Texas A&M

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The green wristband on Brittney Griner's right wrist is emblazoned with two words: Unfinished Business.

Baylor's All-America women's basketball player has worn it since the first team meeting of the season. Every time she looks at it, the 6-foot-8 Griner reflects on the Final Four trip she did not take last season despite the Lady Bears' 34-3 record.

The junior and her teammates, who hope and expect to be the nation's No. 1 team when The Associated Press' preseason poll is released on Oct. 29, eagerly await the opportunity to correct last year's shortcoming.

"I wish I could just start in March Madness," said Griner, who recalled "getting mad" every time she turned on a television to get a scoring update during last year's Final Four. "It went through my head the whole time, 'We should be there.' Not getting there was a big letdown and we're motivated to go back. But we have to take it one step at a time. When we get there, we're going to be prepared."

That is the expectation of coach Kim Mulkey, who reached back in the motivational archives for this year's team motto. It is the same one Baylor used in 2005, when the school won its only NCAA title.

That season, the Bears were coming off a last-second season loss to Tennessee in the 2004 NCAA Tournament. This time, Baylor is coming off a regional-final loss to Texas A&M, the eventual NCAA champ, that marked the Bears' only loss in four meetings against the Lady Aggies.

Unlike last season, when Baylor featured a young lineup led by a freshman point guard (Odyssey Sims), these Bears return four starters and several key role players. In Mulkey's estimation, they should be able to handle the spotlight in pressure-packed moments. That is why Mulkey said she wants to begin the season ranked No. 1, with expectations of a national title.

"I think this team needs to have that," Mulkey said. "Last year, we didn't really want to embrace expectations because we were young. This year, we should embrace that. They can handle it. This team doesn't get too high or too low. So let's go see if we can ...get to a Final Four and win a national championship."

Memories of last year's season-ending loss to A&M still motivate Mulkey and her players. Mulkey said she skipped a trip to last year's Final Four -- as well as the accompanying coaches convention -- and did not tune in the telecast of the championship game.

Neither did Sims, who averaged 13.1 points per game last season but missed all seven of her shots from the field in the 58-46 loss to A&M. Before a recent practice, Sims said she watched "every bit" of the A&M game to stoke her emotional fire. Like Mulkey, she said she would embrace a No. 1 preseason ranking and the pressure that comes with it.

"It doesn't matter to me. A ranking is just a number," Sims said. "We just have to clean up some little things and we can do great things this year."

Much of the optimism is generated by Griner, a player A&M coach Gary Blair called "the most dominant women's player that has ever played this game."

Griner led the Big 12 in scoring (23.0 avg.) and led the NCAA in blocked shots (170) last season. She has five career dunks, most by any women's player, with two seasons of eligibility remaining.

Now, Griner is ready to atone for last year's season-ending disappointment and said she would welcome the spotlight that comes with being No. 1.

"I like being ranked high," Griner said. "It puts a target on your back and you're going to get everybody's 'A' game. I like that. That drives me a lot. That's what a player wants every game is to play against somebody at their best."

And, in Baylor's case, to take care of some unfinished business from last season.

Follow Jimmy Burch on Twitter @Jimmy_Burch.

Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760

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