Top-seeded Stanford opens NCAAs at home vs. Tulsa
STANFORD, Calif. -- Surprisingly, Stanford's Chiney Ogwumike feels little pressure this NCAA tournament.
Not when an entire nation is eyeing whether Brittney Griner and No. 1 Baylor can defend their championship.
And even if the top-seeded Cardinal are seeking a sixth straight trip to the Final Four and would face a possible showdown with Pac-12 rival California in the Spokane regional final with a berth to New Orleans at stake. It's largely up to Ogwumike this year with her big sister, Nneka, long gone and now a WNBA star and reigning rookie of the year with the Los Angeles Sparks.
"This year more than ever it's no pressure, even though we have a 1 seed. The whole world has framed it Baylor versus the field, right?" Ogwumike said before hitting the practice floor Saturday. "Honestly, it's really worked in our favor because we feel no pressure."
First, Stanford (31-2) will face No. 16 seed Tulsa (17-16) in its NCAA opener at home in Maples Pavilion on Sunday. In the second game of the day on Stanford's campus, eighth-seeded Michigan (21-10) will face No. 9 Villanova (21-10).
The Tulsa team won 10 of its final 13 games and five in a row after an improbable run to the Conference USA tournament title as the sixth seed -- led by senior Tiffani Couisnard, who balances her basketball and school life with being mother to a 2-year-old son.
"We kept renewing our minds, refocusing, and remembering that anything is possible," Couisnard said. "If we just give it all we have, we can achieve anything and we can win. I think that mentality is what we bought into."
Second-year Golden Hurricane coach Matilda Mossman has Tulsa back in the tournament for the first time since the program advanced to the second round in 2006. While beating Stanford at home is a daunting task, so was the road Tulsa had to take to get this far.
"If we didn't believe the unexpected could happen, we wouldn't have made the trip," Mossman said. "For our program, it's the first step in getting our program back to our 2006 days. Before the conference tournament started, we told our team that there are two types of teams left: There's the team that is finished playing, they're ready to turn in their gear, they're ready for their spring break, they've checked out. The other type of team is the team that doesn't want their season to end."
If the season is going to continue past Sunday, Tulsa must find a way to slow down Pac-12 Player of the Year Ogwumike, with her averages of 22.4 points and 13.1 rebounds. Mossman's plan is for her players -- two or three of them at a time -- to match Ogwumike's energy on both ends of the floor.
Longtime Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer isn't ready to make any bold predictions about her current team returning to the Final Four.
"We don't have as much firepower as we have in the last five years, this is probably in a lot of ways the least, maybe talented, and least in some ways tournament-experienced team," she said. "My experience has been in some ways that takes some pressure off of people, and hopefully they can play loose and excited basketball like we did when we were in Hawaii to beat Baylor."
That victory on Nov. 16 in Honolulu is the lone blemish on the Lady Bears' 32-1 record.
VanDerveer's team has often been inconsistent since then, most notably in an embarrassing 61-35 loss at home to Connecticut on Dec. 29. That snapped the Cardinal's 82-game, home-winning streak at Maples.
"We don't have Nneka, we don't have Kayla (Pedersen) or Jeanette (Pohlen) or Jayne Appel or Candice Wiggins. Those are first-round draft picks," VanDerveer said. "This is a tough puzzle to put together, but I would never underestimate this group. The strength of this team is their cohesiveness. There's not a selfish bone in the body of anyone in this locker room. We will have to play well. This hasn't been like a perfect season."
While VanDerveer won't rule out the return of Toni Kokenis in a limited role before this season ends, she isn't counting on it, either, saying "it's not looking good." Kokenis hasn't played since Feb. 3 at Oregon State because of an undisclosed medical condition, but said Saturday she is still hopeful of playing for the Cardinal next season.
In fact, VanDerveer must figure out what defensive combinations might work best to take Golden Hurricane leading scorer Taleya Mayberry out of her game. She is averaging 18.7 points.
"You miss someone with great tournament experience, her athleticism," VanDerveer said. "She is someone you'd want guarding Mayberry."
Michigan has reached back-to-back NCAA tournaments for the first time since 2000-01, with a familiar NCAA coaching face in Kim Barnes Arico. She took St. John's to the Fresno Regional semifinals last season before losing to Duke, and lost to Stanford at Maples in the second round of the 2011 tournament.
"Every year," Barnes Arico said, smiling. "It's sunny this time."
Now, back in the Bay Area to play the NCAAs for the second time in three years, she leads the Wolverines into a matchup she knows well from her Big East days.
Barnes Arico spent 10 years coaching against 35th-year Villanova coach Harry Perretta.
"It's kind of a bummer it's Harry and he runs that system," Barnes Arico said. "It took me a long time at St. John's to be able to beat them and be able to stop them."
And Perretta wasn't thrilled to see Michigan and Barnes Arico when brackets were announced Monday. He would have preferred a team that didn't know his motion offense so well. Perretta recommended Barnes Arico for the Michigan job, too.
The teams play similar perimeter-oriented styles. In fact, Perretta has taught Barnes Arico aspects of the motion offense.
"We usually do better against teams that either the coach hasn't seen us very much or the team hasn't seen each other very much," Perretta said.
Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press
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