- Michelle Smith, Contributor, espnW.com
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SEATTLE -- The buzzer sounded Sunday evening on a Pac-12 tournament final that was alternately excruciating and compelling, and Stanford point guard Amber Orrange became ground zero for the celebration.
The sophomore, the shy Army brat whom Tara VanDerveer has been pulling out of her shell since she arrived on The Farm, had just willed the Cardinal to a 51-49 win against UCLA to send Stanford to its seventh straight conference tournament title.
Orrange finished with 20 points, including the game winner as she split two significantly larger defenders to score on a drive to the basket with seven seconds to go, capping the best game of her college career.
Chiney Ogwumike grabbed Orrange, pulled her tight around the shoulders and talked into her ear, her eyes welling up. The last thing Ogwumike said to Orrange was "Thank you." It might have been the first, second and third thing she said as well.
"She just kept telling me, 'I got you. I got you,'" Ogwumike said.
That she did. Ogwumike, the Cardinal star who had been playing at a different level than everybody else through the first two games of this tournament, came back down to earth Sunday in the title game.
She sat for a large chunk of the first half in foul trouble and struggled mightily the entire game to find her shot. Ogwumike was 1-for-9 from the floor, finishing with a career-low three points to go with 10 rebounds.
But by virtue of Orrange's heroics -- she scored 10 of Stanford's 12 final points of the game -- Ogwumike finished with another title and the tournament's most outstanding player award. Who could blame her for wanting to hand it over to the player she has taken under her wing?
"I try not to be an emotional person, but I was putting a lot of pressure on myself, thinking I have to play well in order for us to win," Ogwumike said. "I think today proved that's not true.
"With about seven or eight minutes left, Coach told me, 'Chiney, you can't do this by yourself.' After that I knew this is Amber's night. She had the best feel of the game out of anyone, and I trusted her."
It was a strange day from the start for Stanford, opening with the adventure of getting out of the hotel and to the arena. A kitchen fire at the team hotel caused the elevators to shut down just as the team was preparing to depart, leaving most of the Stanford players on the upper floors, pondering whether they would need to take 38 flights of stairs down to get to the bus.
Ogwumike, for one, went from the 38th to the 23rd floor before getting on the elevator again.
But once the game began, Stanford jumped to a fast 11-0 lead as UCLA missed its first 11 shots. Then the foul trouble that hasn't plagued the Cardinal all season showed up.
Ogwumike, Orrange and Mikaela Ruef all went to the bench with two fouls before halftime, a hard-and-fast rule in the VanDerveer handbook.
And the Cardinal lead evaporated. UCLA went on an 8-0 run to close the first half with a 27-26 lead, then stretched it to 41-34 with a little more than seven minutes left in the game.
But it was Orrange who grabbed back the momentum for Stanford, and not only with her scoring. Her hustle forced three turnovers and she saved the Cardinal from another costly mistake late in the game, saving a near turnover after a poor pass by diving on the ball to hold possession.
"I was thinking, 'I just want to win. I just want to win. I'll do whatever it takes,'" Orrange said. "I just looked for opportunities to take chances on plays on offense and defense, and luckily it worked out."
VanDerveer said Orrange has been one of her team's hardest workers this season, spending extra time on the floor and a lot of time in the film room with assistant coach Kate Paye.
"I think she's grown a lot," VanDerveer said.
Orrange freely admits that's true, saying her hardest work has been on the mental side of the game.
"If this would have happened last year," she said, "I probably would have shut down and had a really, really bad game."
UCLA was clearly hurting after the game, looking disbelievingly at a loss that just moments earlier seemed like a winnable championship.
Bruins coach Cori Close might see Orrange driving to the basket in her sleep for the next couple of weeks, going left over and over against UCLA's otherwise stellar defense.
"It's hard to have her make those plays down the stretch," Close said. "There are a lot of things as a coach that I would have done differently knowing what she was doing. But I want to give credit to Amber. I thought our pressure bothered her a lot of the game. For her to stay that persistent and confident after we made her pick up the ball, turn the ball over. Her steadiness is why they are a great team."
A reporter asked VanDerveer in the waning hours of Saturday night, following Stanford's bruising semifinal win over Colorado, whether the Pac-12 tournament was getting harder, the insinuation being that at one point it must have been easy for the Cardinal.
Truth be told, Stanford has certainly made it look that way through the years.
"It's never been easy," VanDerveer corrected.
And that might be true. But this year has been tougher on Stanford than any in a long time with the heavy reliance on Ogwumike and a stepped-up challenge from the rest of the conference.
And it didn't get any tougher than Sunday night, when Stanford had to find its mettle and perhaps found a new go-to player for the postseason in their actions-are-louder-than-words point guard.
"I wasn't sure our team was built for three games in three days with this caliber of competition," VanDerveer said. "But people really stepped up for us our team had to grit it out. And quite honestly, we haven't had to do that a lot this year. We learned a lot about ourselves. I think we will be better for the experience."
18dBonnie D. Ford