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Griner, young Baylor Bears quickly make Final Four

WACO, Texas (AP) — With 6-foot-8 dunking sensation Brittney Griner among a group of talented freshmen, Baylor expected to get back to the NCAA Final Four.

Just not this quickly.

"Realistically, you couldn't put Final Four maybe as a team goal," coach Kim Mulkey said Wednesday. "I knew they were talented. As we were around them and we coached them, that was going to be a goal eventually. They've exceeded and overachieved as freshman at this level."

These baby Bears, with five freshmen and only one senior, have made it to the Final Four in San Antonio, about three hours from the Waco campus. They will be the first team since 2001 to play a national semifinal game in its home state.

Baylor (27-9) has to face the nation's best team in the second semifinal game Sunday night. The Lady Bears play Connecticut, which has won a record 76 games in a row after a 40-point regional final victory over Florida State.

"A lot of people are talking about how intimidating they are, but we're just focusing on the 40 minutes we get to play them," junior guard Melissa Jones said after the Lady Bears' first practice for the Final Four. "It doesn't matter what they've done or proved in the past."

The Lady Bears have already eliminated top-seeded Tennessee to avenge a season-opening loss. They overcame a 10-point deficit after halftime to beat No. 2 seed Duke in the regional final.

Led by All-Americans Maya Moore and Tina Charles, UConn (37-0) is two victories away from becoming the first women's team with consecutive undefeated seasons. The Huskies have won their four tournament games by an average of 47 points.

"We just want our shot at them for 40 minutes. We feel like we can come out and really surprise everybody," said Griner, whose 218 blocks this season and 35 in the tournament are both NCAA records. "We've been surprising people every game. We were expected to lose the Tennessee game and everybody thought we were going to lose the Duke game."

The Lady Bears are scheduled to play at Connecticut next season. And again in Waco during the 2011-12 season.

By then, Baylor might just be the dominant team.

"We've got some good people coming in," said guard Shanay Washington, the freshman starter who doesn't dunk. "They're doing it, why can't we do it?"

The only Baylor senior is forward Morghan Medlock. There are three McDonald's All-Americans who haven't yet gotten on the court for the Lady Bears, two transfers and a high school signee.

Baylor's game Sunday is the 10th anniversary of Mulkey's introduction as coach.

The Lady Bears are in their ninth NCAA tournament under Mulkey, and their only other Final Four was when they won the national championship five years ago. Now they have to play a team that is clearly the best in women's college basketball.

"UConn's up here," Mulkey said, holding her hand up above her head. "The rest of us are playing for second place. But that doesn't mean we're just going to go out there and give up and start waving the flag. ... We will be very, very respectful, but not fearful."

Baylor came into this season having lost four starters, their top four scorers, from a 29-win team.

Then Jones, the team captain and emotional sparkplug, missed 15 conference games because of a right leg injury. That forced Mulkey to lean on freshman guards Kimetria Hayden and Jordan Madden, now both key reserves.

"At a time when you just couldn't afford that particular player to get injured, it made me as a coach have to play them," Mulkey said. "Now (Jones) is healthy again, and there's the silver lining that you were looking for in January and February, and I don't hesitate now to put those freshmen in the game because of the minutes they got."

Picked first in a preseason poll of Big 12 coaches primarily because of Griner, the Lady Bears instead finished sixth. The league sent seven teams to the NCAA tournament, but Baylor and Oklahoma — which plays Stanford on Sunday — are the only ones still playing.

Griner and the young Bears have set quite a standard for the rest of their careers.

"At the beginning of the year, Coach told us this group was going to be special someday. She didn't know when," junior guard Kelli Griffin said. "They set a bar that nothing less is expected from here on through their career. ... We can do nothing but grow."