Sisters Try to Lead Stanford to NCAA Title

Sisters Nnemkadi and Chiney Ogwumike celebrate Stanford's 77-62 win over Cal in the Pac-12 Tournament Championship with their mother at Staples Center. Photo: Dennis J. Freeman

Los Angeles-Yes, March Madness is here. Finally. All the crazy last-second shots, the spectacular finishes and highlight reel plays are coming full bore for the next several weekends. Stanford women’s basketball team could deal without that kind of drama.

Behind the outstanding play of sisters Nnemkadi and Chiney Ogwumike, Stanford just wants to take the NCAA Women’s Division I Basketball Tournament one possession, one half and one game at a time.

The two sisters and their teammates want to take the same approach to the tournament as they did in the Pacific Life Pac-12 Women’s Basketball Tournament and the rest of the season, and that’s with a full focus on the opponent in front of them. Looking ahead to play another opponent in the NCAA tournament will get a team one and done real quickly.

It’s highly unlikely that Nnemkadi and Chiney will allow their Stanford teammates to do that.

Stanford (32-1) didn’t get to be the No. 2 in the country, and record just one defeat the entire season by looking ahead.  One of the best women’s basketball programs in all of college basketball, Stanford does things the old-fashion way: they earn it.

Behind Nnemkadi Ogwumike, who is expected to be considered for national player of the year honors this season, Stanford went undefeated during Pac-12 regular season and hammered every team it played to win the Pac-12 tournament title. Nnemkadi Ogwumike has led Stanford to the Final Four each year she’s been with the program. That goal remains the same.

“I think at this point it’s very obvious what we’d like to achieve,” Nnemkadi Ogwumike said after Stanford defeated Cal 77-62 in the Pac-12 tournament championship game at Staples Center. “However, it takes one game at a time.  I know it sounds cliché, but it’s really our mindset.  We’re just excited for today.  We went undefeated in the regular season?? or, sorry, the Pac?12 season.  We won the tournament.  There have been a few bumps, but we learned.  I think that’s what’s best about this whole Pac?12 experience.  We’ve had great competition.

“A lot of people may not?? may think otherwise, but the teams out here are very hard to beat, especially twice and three times with Cal.  That was not a cake walk.  We’re very thankful for everything that we’ve achieved.
But the postseason is here now, and we’re very excited about it, and we’re going to find out on Monday where we’re going to be. [It] doesn’t matter where we are.  We’re going to go there and play and have fun and win.”

Stanford's Nnemkadi Ogwumike (30) was named Pac-12 Player of the Year, and is up for national honors as well. Photo: Dennis J. Freeman

Baylor is undefeated and is the top-ranked team in the country, and has the game’s preeminent women’s college player in Brittany Griner. Sure, Connecticut brings its rich tradition to the tournament. And women’s college powerhouse Notre Dame is always a tough out. But Stanford is as strong as any of those teams.

Nnemkadi Ogwumike said the Stanford players are not too worried about who they will play down the line in the tournament. The Cardinals are concentrating on themselves as a team, she said.

“I think we do a really good job of focusing on us.  Granted there are standout teams. Baylor has Brittney Griner, Odyssey Sims.  Notre Dame has Sky, Dev and Nat.  As Stanford women’s basketball, we do a really good job of focusing on us,” said Nnemkadi Ogwumike. “It’s difficult for people to include us because of how far away we are.  We’re three time zones away.  But we try our best to take care of business here come the tournament.  Wherever we go, we’ll play there.  We’ll play whoever.  It’s all about having fun and living in the moment and enjoying ourselves on the court and leaving it all on the floor. I think it’s just about the Stanford culture tradition about what we’re really fighting for here together as a team.”

In Stanford’s case, everything begins and ends with Nnemkadi Ogwumike, the Pac-12 Player of the Year. Nnemkadi Ogwumike averaged 21.6 points and 10.5 rebounds a game during the regular season. Stanford coach Tara Vanderveer, the Pac-12 Coach of the Year, says her star has the numbers to be at least considered as the best player in women college basketball.

“Well, I guess, maybe I just look at kind of what the qualifications of the “Player of the Year” are,” Vanderveer said. “For me, a “Player of the Year” would be a great teammate, a great leader, which Nnemkadi is.  She has the numbers to back it up.  She can score in a lot of different ways, and you saw it today.  She rebounds.  She scores.  She place defense.  She blocks shots.  I think she does everything.  She gets steals. So she physically backs things up.

“But I think she brings intangibles to the game that are really special. I think she also is playing with, in some ways maybe a less experienced cast in terms of her guards and perimeter people.  But that’s for people to vote on.  She’s got my vote. What she wants to do is something that would be great.  She’ll be an All?American.  But I think she wants to just keep her season going and keep playing with her sister and her teammates as long as she can.”

Vanderveer, in her 26th season as coach at Stanford, got the luck of the draw by pulling in Nnemkadi’s younger sister, Chiney to the program. Chiney Ogwumike is a pretty good player herself, earning a gold medal on the USA Basketball team at the 2011 World University Games. At 6-foot-3, Chiney Ogwumike, only a sophomore, can more than hold her own on the basketball court.

With both Nnemkadi and Chiney on the floor, it’s going to be hard-pressed for any team to beat them.

“We’ve had some great post players at Stanford,” Vanderveer said. “I don’t really like to compare.  I would just say today I love coaching them.  They’re doing a great job for us.  I do think they have a special connection being sisters. So even if had you two other great post players together, but if you just look at the Pac?12 at Pam and Paula McGee.

“I think they were pretty awesome. There have been great players over the past, and we’re really fortunate to have watched an excellent exhibition today from them.  I enjoy coaching them, but I’m not really good at comparing that stuff.  We’ll go back to the gym and have more to work on Monday.  They’re doing a great job for us, but there is always more.”

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