DALLAS – LSU coach Kim Mulkey has not spoken to Brittney Griner since the former Baylor star was freed from a Russian prison and returned to the U.S., but Mulkey did have a message for her ex-player.
“I’m glad she’s back,” Mulkey said at her Final Four news conference Thursday, a day before the Tigers' meeting with Virginia Tech in the national semifinals. “I’m glad she’s safe, she’s sound. I think everybody is.”
Mulkey was criticized in September for not offering any words of support or encouragement for Griner, the three-time All-American and WNBA star who was arrested in February in Russia on drug-related charges and was later convicted and sentenced to nine years in a Russian jail.
“And you won't,” Mulkey interrupted in the fall when asked for a reaction to Griner's situation by a reporter who suggested the coach hadn't weighed in.
After Griner's release in a dramatic prisoner swap with Russia, Mulkey issued a statement through ESPN expressing relief over the news.
Baylor was the first 40-0 national champion when Griner was a junior in 2012. The Bears lost in the regional finals a year later. Baylor also made the Final Four when Griner was a freshman.
After her Baylor career, Griner came out. Days after she was the WNBA's No. 1 overall pick by Phoenix in 2013, Griner criticized Mulkey, saying her former coach forced her to keep her sexual orientation private because it could hurt recruiting.
Griner has said she plans to resume her career with the Mercury; she missed last season while imprisoned in Russia.
Virginia Tech coach Kenny Brooks, a self-professed Dallas Cowboys fan, has already reminisced about sitting not far from star quarterback Dak Prescott six years ago when Prescott's alma mater, Mississippi State, ended Connecticut's 111-game winning streak in the national semifinals in Dallas.
Turns out there's another reason that Final Four was special for Brooks, who had just finished his first season with the Hokies while Prescott was fresh off an NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year debut.
Brooks took his middle daughter, Chloe, on that trip, and remembers her being in a tough place mentally because of an injury.
“We had the best time,” Brooks said. “I wish I could give you a story, a Disney story ending and saying, ‘Hey, baby, one day we’re going to be here too,’ but we didn’t. But it was a memorable moment, and to come full circle to know that 2023, I’m going to bring my team. Like Taylor (Soule) says, ‘We’re not at the Final Four. We’re in the Final Four.’”
South Carolina star Aliyah Boston remembers watching the Gamecocks win their first national championship six years ago in the same arena where they'll try for the program's third title.
Coach Dawn Staley's team beat Mississippi State 67-55 after the Bulldogs had ended UConn's run with an overtime buzzer-beater in the semifinals.
“I definitely remember watching that game,” Boston said. “Winning a national title was pretty cool because I knew that I also wanted to do that and play under coach Staley.”
Ditto for guard Zia Cooke: “I think after I watched that game, I told my dad, ‘I want to go there. I want to go there,.”
Iowa star Caitlin Clark had a pair of teammates at the podium for the news conference previewing their South Carolina game. They were asked for their favorite Clark-like moment.
Gabbie Marshall was torn between whether the opponent was Iowa State or Ohio State. But she remembers it was at home.
“She had come down and hit three logo shots in a row,” Marshall said. “I remember looking over, like, ‘What is going on? This girl’s crazy.’ I’m not really sure who we were playing, but that was crazy. But I was not surprised.”
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