SAN ANTONIO _ It was the punch heard around the world.
Back on Mar. 3, Baylor center Brittney Griner was ejected from a game in Lubbock after punching Texas Tech's Jordan Barncastle. The Big 12 ultimately suspended Griner for one game for the transgression, and Baylor added another one-game suspension.
Since the uprising, Baylor has posted a 5-2 record, losing only to Texas _ without Griner _ and to an Oklahoma squad that made its second straight trip to the Final Four.
Thanks to Griner, the Lady Bears themselves have punched their very own Final Four ticket. And what Baylor learned about Griner and itself after the punch helped the Lady Bears (27-9) obtain a date tonight at 8:30 against top-ranked Connecticut (37-0) inside the Alamodome.
"I think that it's helped all of us kind of grow from it, especially Brittney,'' junior guard Melissa Jones said. "I think everyone in our lives at some point let our emotions just get the best of us.
"It was just extremely out of character for that to happen. However, when things get heated in a game, like now, she's the first one to step up and say, 'Hey, guys, let's calm it down, let's keep it cool and let's just be Baylor.' She's grown so much from it and it's progressed throughout the rest of the team for us to do the same.''
Following Griner's memorable punch, junior guard Kelli Griffin said one of the things on the players' minds was to find a way to console Griner. They knew the punch was something way out of character for the 6-8 freshman from Houston Aldine Nimitz.
"It was an incident that happened that shouldn't have,'' Griffin said. "We definitely tried to be there for Brittney and just try to keep her head up, be there if she needed to talk about it.''
Other than losing to Texas without Griner, Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said the punch by Griner has been nothing but a footnote to this season for the Lady Bears.
"I don't think it's had an effect, other than I had to make a disciplinary decision and suspend her and do other things and reprimand and things and requirements that she has to abide by,'' Mulkey said. "But if you're talking about circling the wagons and playing better, we were playing good before the suspension, and we continued to play good after the suspension.
"So I guess the one game that she missed affected our team for sure.''
Griner now knows the punch was intolerable and something that has absolutely no place in basketball.
"It definitely opened my eyes to see how much you're under the public eye,'' Griner said. "Especially being on TV and the cameras on and everything, you've got to keep your cool in tough games, and I've learned that.
"I hate that it had to come to something to that extent for it to happen, but it was definitely a learning experience.''
And what did Griner learn from punching Barncastle?
"Yeah, 24/7 you're always under a microscope, even when you're not playing basketball,'' she said. "When you're around on campus, who you hang with, and where you go in your spare time.''
Since Griner is one of the tallest players in women's college basketball, she often gets beat up and knocked around more than any other player. And sometimes the physical play goes on and on without Griner receiving the benefit of a favorable whistle from the referees.
"I feel like I take a lot in the post,'' Griner said. "Being bigger, the refs really don't call as much my way.
"But it's still no excuse for what happened. But it's a lot to put up with.''
Griner certainly has put the punch behind her. With at least one game left, she's already set the NCAA Tournament record for blocks with 35.
In the process, critics have gone back to recognizing Griner for her superb play on the court instead of what she did on that dark day in Lubbock.
"I think that Brittney Griner should be known as the great player who has been dominating the NCAA tournament, and I feel like she's the girl who is going to change the game altogether,'' Jones said. "And I think it's not really talked about.
"Her punch was extremely talked about because it was so out of character. I think that's why it was blown up, because it's not something, if you know Brittney Griner, that it would ever even happen. So that shouldn't really be what is talked about her, because of what she does for this game, what she does for women's basketball and not just Baylor.''
_ Dwain Price