From the beginning of the year, we did not know what to expect for this season. We lost our quintessential All-American, my sister Nneka, along with other instrumental cogs to the Stanford women's basketball machine: Lindy La Rocque, Grace Mashore, Sarah Boothe. To the surprise of many around the country, we have had a wildly successful season thus far! Each game we've played has taught us something, but the biggest lesson for me came from our Pac-12 tournament championship game in Seattle.
If you asked me in the fall, "Chiney, do you consider yourself Nneka's little sister?" I would probably say jokingly, "Heeeeeck no. We are two completely different people that just happen to look alike, play the same sport and go to the same school." But in all seriousness, as I have mentioned before, this year's journey has been an opportunity for me to discover myself.
I am much different from Nneka. She is finesse, skill and athleticism. I am back-to-the-basket bang, catch and finish, aggressive. Even though I could never admit it out loud, in my head I always wondered if I could ever be that instrumental leader for our team that she was. Our Pac-12 tournament championship game taught me, you do not assume leadership ... you attack it! You embrace it! You share it!
Our game versus UCLA was the biggest test of adversity that any team can face. Three games in three days is rough, not only physically, but mentally. I don't think our coaches got a wink of sleep, either, preparing us for our next game or working ahead to make sure we had all teams covered.
After struggling finishing the night before against Colorado, I took a sigh of relief during the championship game as my first shot when in. But then things would change. Credit to UCLA's defense, they were like ninjas, swarming the ball, playing aggressive D. As the game wore on, I felt like there was a lid on the rim for me, the worst in-game feeling a player can have. For so long I have felt in control, capable and willing. But that night, I fought the urge to question myself. In my head I kept saying, "Fight. Fight. Fight." But it just did not seem to be my day.
The beauty of basketball is that it is a team sport. When one person struggles, another person has the opportunity to step up. And that person was our point guard, Amber "Bam" Orrange. Point guard is a natural position of leadership. All season, Amber has been a steady force for us. As a quiet, shy freshman last year, from day one Amber was challenged to become a vocal leader for us. But on Sunday night, her game did all the talking.
I took my last shot toward the end of the second half, and immediately after, during a timeout, Coach Tara told me, "Chiney, you cannot do this by yourself." A big part of leadership is being able to let go, for the right reasons. No offense to the Mamba, but I could have gone all Kobe, forcing things to the point of no return (hey sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't).
But again in all seriousness, I learned in that moment that leadership is shared in moments of adversity. The ball most rightfully deserved to be in Amber's hands. She was having her best night. We trusted in her playmaking abilities ... and she delivered. Amber had a momentous steal and the game-winning layup!
As a player, this has been the best year of basketball for me, ever. I have the most unselfish teammates who put me in great positions to be successful. Every hooper wants a Mikaela Ruef on their team: someone who gets more excited to make the extra pass than to score herself. Every hooper wants a Joslyn Tinkle on their team: someone who smiles through any situation, but is tougher than nails. Every hooper wants an Amber Orrange on their team: someone who loves the game and her teammates more than anything else. Every hooper wants a Sara James on their team: someone who is the first to dive on the floor for a loose ball, just to save the possession. The list goes on and on.
What I am trying to say is, anything is possible when you play for each other. True teams are made when you put aside individual wants and needs for the collective good. Everybody has bad nights, mine just happened to be the Pac-12 tournament championship. But during any struggle, a true team will lift you up and get you through.
I am blessed to have those type of teammates, and I encourage you to be the same. We don't know what March Madness will bring, but I do know that my Stanford sisters and I are ready to battle ... like we say in every huddle, "Together!" I leave you with one of my favorite quotes, "I believe that we could be extraordinary together, rather than ordinary apart."