- Michelle Smith, Contributor, espnW.com
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LOS ANGELES -- Less than a minute into Saturday's Pac-12 championship game against Cal at Staples Center, Stanford's Chiney Ogwumike took an elbow to the face.
She bent over at the waist under the basket in obvious pain.
Nneka Ogwumike went straight to her younger sister, lifted her face in her hands, wiped her tears and gave her a talk. She got Chiney straightened out and headed to the bench before the trainer could even get there.
Maybe it's not a stretch to say that Nneka Ogwumike really does do everything for Stanford.
Nneka scored 29 points in a 77-62 win over the Bears that lifted Stanford (31-1) to its ninth title and extended its win streak over Pac-12 foes to 78 games. She will also go into the record books for most points in the tournament with 71.
But it was how she did it that should strike fear into the hearts of every potential NCAA opponent in the next three weeks. She turned herself from a relentless, physical, uber-athletic post into a perimeter-shooting wing, and she did it on a dime.
Nneka hit her first three 3-pointers of the game, going 3-for-4 beyond the arc. And she hit three more shots from just inside the line.
"She did stuff today that we've never gone over, never practiced," Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said. "I said, 'Nneka, can you do this?' And she said, 'Yes.'"
Nneka has been honing her face-up game for a while now, taking shorter jumpers inside the paint, burying baseline shots and working up her courage to get out to the 3-point line.
In the short term, it makes her a matchup nightmare for her college opponents. In her next life in the WNBA, and even on the international stage, it makes her more well-rounded considering she is slightly undersized playing the post.
"I've been working on this all season," Nneka said. "It's not necessarily that we run plays for my 3 ..."
"We might," interjected VanDerveer.
"Tara has always known all along that she thinks that I can shoot out there," Nneka continued. "Chiney always says there's a psychological barrier when I see the line. Today it was more, so we just needed to score."
Chiney has indeed been pushing Nneka the whole way. The way only a younger sister can.
"I told her yesterday, 'Your foot is on the line sometimes and you're still trying the shot. When you realize your foot's on the line, it's like, 'Oh no, it's a 3,'" Chiney explained animatedly. "I said her 3 was going to come. When she shot it [Saturday], I said, 'Oh, the irony. I told you, I told you.'
"She was looking calm and collected. We ran a play later and I had it on the wing and she said, 'Ball.' I was like, 'Ok,' and she shot it. I'm excited for her."
VanDerveer said Nneka's perimeter shooting will give her team more "flexibility."
"Early this year I told her she'd be shooting 3s," VanDerveer said. "She has great touch, a high-arcing shot. We can move people around, take advantage of matchups a little better."
Even Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb, whose defensive scouting couldn't have included defending Nneka on the perimeter, had to give the Stanford star her due.
"I think when you have the combination of sort of ridiculous athleticism, skill and a will to get better, that's just a credit to her," Gottlieb said. "I also think it speaks to their respect for our post game, that they know their best weapon with her against us is to face her up a little bit, maybe against somebody else."
Cal has more than its share of post talent and presented one of the few true challenges for Stanford in the Pac-12, and in the nation, really. But the Bears had trouble creating offense off their opportunities in the paint, just 12 points off 23 offensive rebounds.
Chiney finished with 17 points and 13 rebounds. Freshman guard Amber Orrange continues to blossom and had one of her best games with 13 points, 3 assists and 2 steals in 28 minutes.
Stanford jumped out to an early 17-4 lead, and Cal's early hole almost matched Stanford's margin of victory.
"Any time you put yourself in a hole, it's hard to dig yourself out," said Cal guard Layshia Clarendon, who led the Bears with 20 points. "Even if you play even, you've already put yourself down. So that was a tough start."
Gottlieb said she hopes her team (24-9) will end up with a strong seed befitting its RPI. She would like to stay off the No. 8-9 line in the brackets and avoid a potential second-round matchup with a No. 1 seed.
"I think we've earned that," Gottlieb said. "We clearly set ourselves as the second-best team in the Pac-12. We've challenged some of the top, top teams. We're going to be excited wherever we go. But I think we've earned something in that mid 20's RPI range."
Michelle Smith is contributor to espnW.
15dBonnie D. Ford