B ehind every triumph and heartbreak in the NCAA tournament, there’s a story. The Players’ Tribune presents Tales of Madness, a series of first-person accounts from iconic basketball players who recall their most memorable tournament experiences. In this installment, Brittney Griner recalls Baylor’s national championship win over Notre Dame and the Lady Bears’ historic 2012 season.
When I was young, I never dreamed about winning a national championship.
I didn’t even play basketball.
But I was tall. And long. And had large hands. I was made for the game. It found me later in life, compared to most collegiate athletes.
When I went to Baylor on a basketball scholarship — and when I thought about the future as a freshman — one achievement I wanted more than any individual award was a national championship. I’m a competitor, you know. I don’t want to play just to play; I want to play to win, and I wanted to win it all.
We came close that first year, but lost to UConn. We wanted to get back.
We did my junior year.
That’s the only word that sums up that whole season. We never set out to go undefeated. But we got one win. Then another. And another. Teams were gunning for us. We kept winning. We entered the tournament 34-0.
We dominated. The media surrounding my team — and myself — was out of this world. Every time I left the gym, every event we had, every time I stepped on that court, there were recorders or cameras aimed at me. Every team had a signing at the Final Four, and ours was insane. All of my teammates were like, “OK, Brittney, you go to the end of the table. You’re the last one or else all of these fans are going to pile up.” Every time we went to go eat a team meal — media. It was non-stop the whole tournament.
I felt a little pressure.
Still, we made it to championship game. We would be facing Notre Dame, who we’d played earlier in the season and beat on their home court. We were pretty confident but we couldn’t overlook them — that’s when you lose games.
We knew we’d have to shut down their star guard, Skylar Diggins. We wanted to pressure her. She liked to go straight to the basket but we knew she’d have to go through three or four defenders first, before she got to me.
Ball. You. Rim. That’s how I defended.
The day of the national championship, my body was tired. We were playing in Denver, and the altitude was an issue. Our coaches kept saying, “Mind over body,” but it wasn’t mind over body. We were tired! I felt like I couldn’t breathe. But I was going to win this national championship.
Before the start of the first half, Coach Mulkey kept saying to us, “Every possession — lay it on the line. It’s your last game. Don’t hold back — you don’t want to regret anything.” If we were going to go down, it was going to be a fight.
Our team built a lead, but we were a little over-excited at the start. We had so many Lady Bears fans make the drive — bus after bus of them. It felt like a home game. They were screaming and shouting; you could feel it reverberating throughout the arena. Coach made sure to calm us down; she didn’t want us getting big eyes and overlooking Notre Dame. We couldn’t give up the big lead we’d established out the gate. She put us in check. Turnovers, loose balls we didn’t go after, rebounds we didn’t pull down — she called us out and made sure we capitalized on those small details that are so important to a win.
Notre Dame came within three in the second half. It was what coach warned us about — we’re going to end up giving away this game.
But we didn’t.
I remember looking at Odyssey Sims and the rest of my teammates, and saying, “We’ve got this. It’s time to take over. It’s time to take over.”
Odyssey did an amazing job guarding Skylar. We made her work hard on every possession — defense and offense — with one goal: tire her out. There’s one thing you need to know about Odyssey: she’s just ferocious on the court. There’s nothing she thinks she can’t do. She’d rip Skylar of the ball and we’d sit in the backcourt like, OK, Odyssey, go get the ball from ‘em. She’s a lock down defender.
I was making my shots. My guards were locking up theirs. I got one block, then two, then three. Five total. Odyssey had 19 points. Destiny Williams had 12. We all played well but more importantly, we did it together.
We led the entire game. Even when they came close, we never panicked.
With about a minute to go, Coach Mulkey pulled me out of the game. I walked off the court and straight into her arms. She told me, “We did it, big girl.” She was crying.
We won the national championship. We went 40-0 — the first men’s or women’s team in history to ever do that.
When that buzzer goes off — all that hard work you put in, all those practices, all those days you didn’t want to wake up, that’s when it’s all worth it. I was on the bench, looking around, thinking, Who do I go hug first? I was looking for all of those people who meant so much to me.
I remember running around … and around … and around. And then I did a confetti angel.
I’d always wanted to do that.
The trip back to Texas — it was like we were riding back on a party plane and a party bus. I was doing interviews on the plane, on the bus. Everybody was just so happy.
Before that season, I didn’t think of myself as vocal or a leader but my team and Coach Mulkey put a lot of faith in me. They put a lot on my shoulders. They had confidence in me. I became a leader because of their confidence.
That national championship meant everything. I wish I could go back and play in that game again. They always say you’re going to miss it when you’re done playing. And I definitely do — I miss it. I wish I could just go back and cherish it more.
That game will always be a highlight of my career. That whole season. Those girls. Coach Mulkey. All the little moments that added up to that unbelievable whole.
When I got to Baylor, Coach said I’d win a championship and … I did. We did.
For more Tales of Madness, visit our Tales of Madness page.