- Michelle Smith, Contributor, espnW.com
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FRESNO, Calif. -- On a night when the spotlight was supposed to belong to Duke's Chelsea Gray and her three rows of supporters who made the 75-mile trip from Stockton, Stanford's Nneka Ogwumike took it away.
On a day when Brittney Griner dunked and led Baylor into the Elite Eight, Ogwumike took a little of that limelight, too.
And on a night when Stanford was more uncomfortable than it has been in weeks, Ogwumike simply took over.
Most of the national player of the year votes have been cast, but Ogwumike isn't done staking her claim. She is the reason that the Cardinal are in the Elite Eight for the fifth straight year, her 39-point performance the prime factor in Stanford's 76-60 win over South Carolina at the Save Mart Center on Saturday night.
Stanford, which has won a school-record 31 in a row, takes on Duke, a surprisingly dominant 74-47 winner over St. John's, Monday night (ESPN/ESPN3, 9 p.m. ET) in the regional final for a trip to the Final Four.
If Stanford reaches its fifth straight Final Four, it will be because Ogwumike took it there.
"Nneka is the queen," said sister and teammate Chiney Ogwumike. "She wants this. Nneka carries us on her back a lot, and it's a great back to ride on."
Nneka Ogwumike scored 39 points (the second-highest total of her career behind the 42 she put on Tennessee in December), the rest of her team 37. She was 14 of 22 from the floor, 11 of 12 from the line. She pulled down 10 rebounds.
At one point, guard Toni Kokenis asked Nneka where she wanted to ball. Her answer: "Anywhere."
"It was like we ran a play and she had the advantage literally everywhere on the floor," Kokenis said. "She was hitting almost everything. It was really a matter of giving Nneka the ball so she could do something with it."
And Stanford needed almost all of it against a South Carolina team that has been called "scrappy" for weeks, but was really more than that. They were physical, aggressive, relentless and for much of the game, the Gamecocks did not go away.
South Carolina did what few teams have done against the Cardinal this season: The Gamecocks pulled down 18 offensive rebounds. They got 30 points in the paint. They challenged Stanford inside, and bottled them up outside (Stanford attempted one 3-pointer, a desperation bank shot by Joslyn Tinkle at the halftime buzzer that went in) and it kept them close.
Dawn Staley's team (25-10) got within three points twice in the second half, the second time with 15 minutes, 2 seconds to go. It was still a five-point game with 7:02 to play when, finally, the Cardinal were able to create some breathing room.
Chiney Ogwumike, playing with a large brace on her bruised right knee and coming back into the game twice after two nasty falls, scored inside. Nneka Ogwumike hit a jumper and then another basket in the paint, and Kokenis converted a layup after a steal -- and suddenly it was 68-54.
"We wore down on both sides of the ball," said Staley, leading her program to the regional semifinals for the first time in her career. "Our defense played as well as we could play, if we could have capitalized offensively, we could have stopped the bleeding. We couldn't get over the hump and that puts too much pressure on your defense, and you can't do that."
South Carolina's Aleighsa Sutton credited Nneka Ogwumike.
"It's tough, because you know you are playing tough defense, so my hat's off to her, she made plays," Sutton said. "We gave her different looks, we double-teamed her, we played her straight up. We didn't want to give her easy looks and I don't think we did."
No, the easy part of the evening was handled by Duke. And Gray, the sophomore guard, made the most of her pseudo-hometown return. She led a balanced, impressive effort from the Blue Devils, who got off to a slow start and then exploded past the Red Storm (24-10).
Gray ended up with 13 points, four rebounds, four assists and eight steals. Four of Duke's five starters finished in double figures, led by senior Shay Shelby with 18.
In contrast, St. John's had only one double-figures scorer in senior Da'Shena Stevens with 19 points.
And when she left the game in the first half with two fouls -- coupled with Duke's switch to a matchup zone after rough start -- the game completely turned.
"Stevens is an excellent player and she was tough to stop. I can't say we really did stop her. For us, [the zone] was a change-up," Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie said. "We got off to a slow start and I thought we needed to mix it up a little bit."
When Stevens went to the bench with 13:18 remaining in the first half, the St. John's offense went with her.
St. John's failed to score in the final 6:20 before the break, and the Red Storm went from being up 25-23 to down 36-25.
Duke's run continued in the second half, the Blue Devils building a 51-31 lead less than five minutes in.
From there it was a miserable game of catch-up for St. John's, one they couldn't pull off. St. John's turned over the ball over 19 times.
"I was hoping we would perform a little better," St. John's coach Kim Barnes Arico said. "We came out of the gates great, but they really switched their defense and that gave us some problems.
"Da'Shena is our strength in the zone and when we don't have her in there, it is really difficult to score."
17dBonnie D. Ford