Commentary

Yes, Stanford really is that good

Cardinal answer every challenge to reach fifth straight Final Four; face Baylor next

Originally Published: March 26, 2012
By Michelle Smith | espnW

FRESNO, Calif. -- What else does a team have to do to show that it is really, really good?

Stanford would like to think that Monday night's 81-69 win over second-seeded Duke in the Fresno Regional final would have banished any lingering doubts about the Cardinal.

But the questions about whether Stanford has what it takes are only just beginning.

[+] EnlargeNnemkadi Ogwumike
AP Photo/Gary KazanjianNneka Ogwumike scored 29 points -- she is averaging 28.0 ppg in the tourney -- to earn Stanford its Mile High moment next weekend at the Final Four in Denver.

The Cardinal's reward for moving through one of the toughest parts of the bracket in this entire tournament is a semifinal date with powerhouse Baylor (38-0) on Sunday night in Denver.

The Cardinal have reached the Final Four for a fifth consecutive season, matching an NCAA tournament record also set by Connecticut and LSU.

"We know what we are capable of," said Stanford senior Nneka Ogwumike, who finished the game with 29 points, was named the regional's most outstanding player and tied Candice Wiggins' single-season school record for points with 787. "Hopefully now people understand why we are a No. 1 seed and one of the top teams in the country."

The Cardinal keep having to prove it. They came into the NCAA tournament with a 28-game winning streak and only one loss, to Connecticut in Hartford back in November. But they were awarded the fourth No. 1 seed in the field -- despite three losses for Notre Dame and four for Connecticut. That means Sunday's must-see matchup between Stanford's Ogwumike sisters and Baylor's Brittney Griner will happen in the semifinals and not in the title game.

The Cardinal were sent 3,000 miles to Virginia for their first- and second-round games. There were doubts about how they would handle West Virginia's physicality in the second round, and then South Carolina's quickness in the Sweet 16. Earlier in the season, at least one expert opined that Duke could be a No. 1 seed instead of Stanford because of the perceived weakness of the Cardinal's schedule in the Pac-12.

Stanford's response? Win after win.

"I don't think we totally listened, but it is a little bit of extra motivation to prove people wrong and show them that we are really as good as we are," Stanford guard Toni Kokenis said.

[+] EnlargeJoslyn Tinkle
AP Photo/Rich PedroncelliJoslyn Tinkle, left, hit three of Stanford's seven 3-pointers to help break down Duke's defense.

The Cardinal were very good again Monday night, scoring more points on Duke this season than any other team. But this game was not a one-woman show for Nneka Ogwumike.

She certainly got her share of points, but the Cardinal's perimeter effort, particularly in the first half, probably sealed the deal against a Duke team that wanted this badly after Elite Eight losses each of the past two seasons.

Four different Stanford players combined to hit five first-half 3-pointers to forge a 40-25 lead. And the Cardinal defended, bottling up ESPN.com freshman of the year Elizabeth Williams and keeping the Blue Devils off the offensive boards.

Duke gathered itself at halftime, upped its defensive pressure, drove to the basket, drew fouls and chipped away at Stanford's lead after the break. The Blue Devils trailed just 61-53 with 5 minutes, 40 seconds to go.

And then the game turned. Nneka Ogwumike scored inside on an assist from Joslyn Tinkle. Kokenis pulled down a defensive rebound after a missed 3-pointer by Chelsea Gray, and Tinkle hit a 3-pointer at the other end. Suddenly, it was a 13-point margin and the pressure was off.

Gray finished with 23 points for Duke, but the Blue Devils left feeling like they let another opportunity slip by.

"This will probably hurt the most," Duke senior Shay Selby said. "If you're a sophomore, junior, you can come back next year, but you know, I'm a senior; there is no next year for me."

Stanford, meanwhile, celebrated in front of a very partisan crowd of fans who made the roughly three-hour drive from Palo Alto. In addition to Ogwumike, three other Cardinal players finished in double figures. Sister Chiney Ogwumike added 12 points and 17 rebounds. Tinkle ended up with 13 points, as did freshman guard Amber Orrange, who was 5-of-7 from the floor.

[+] EnlargeChiney Ogwumike
AP Photo/Rich PedroncelliChiney Ogwumike grabbed 17 rebounds to go with 12 points Monday.

Make no mistake, the Cardinal are relishing the opportunity to take on Baylor, one of the only matchups among the top four seeds that didn't take place during this regular season (Baylor beat both Notre Dame and Connecticut; the Huskies and Irish played three times). Stanford and Baylor haven't played since Nneka Ogwumike's freshman season, and Griner was not yet on the Lady Bears' roster.

The Cardinal even relish the role of being the underdogs.

"I like it that way," Nneka Ogwumike said. "I haven't played against Brittney yet and I want to; I've been wanting to. This is going to be fun."

Senior guard Lindy La Rocque said the Cardinal are only interested in proving something to themselves after four previous trips to the Final Four without winning a title.

"We are aware of how people view us, but I think if we weren't aware, that would be when we might get blown out," La Rocque said. "This way, we keep winning."

The bottom line for Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer is that playing with even a little chip on your shoulder doesn't put points on the scoreboard.

"It's always the same thing. It's not rocket science. It's score, play defense and rebound," VanDerveer said. "We are going to the Final Four. We are going."

Michelle Smith

Contributor, espnW.com