- Michelle Smith, Contributor, espnW.com
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DENVER -- Before Nneka Ogwumike, there was Candice Wiggins.
It was Wiggins who scored the points, took the lead, set the tone and put the Stanford Cardinal back in the Final Four. But it took her until the final year of her outstanding career to do it.
She cried on national television the night the Cardinal beat Maryland in Spokane, Wash., back in 2008. It was a release of relief and joy for Stanford's first Final Four appearance in 12 years, a breakthrough that belonged to Wiggins.
Nneka Ogwumike's charge has been to uphold the standard, maintain the path.
That accomplishment belongs to her.
"She has improved so much from her freshman year until now, and she will continue to improve," Stanford Tara VanDerveer said of Ogwumike. "But more than that, she is a solid person. How many coaches can say they've coached someone for four years and they've never had one minute of getting upset with them, being mad at them, having to have a parent or a coach player or daughter word with them?
"She's just outstanding. And it's why you coach. Everyone's out there looking for a player like Nneka."
Ogwumike is back in the Final Four for the fourth time in her career. Stanford's run of five straight national semifinal appearances matches Connecticut and LSU in women's Division I history.
But there have been no titles for the Cardinal, not in 20 years. And Ogwumike has played her final NCAA tournament like she's trying to rectify that fact.
The senior forward has been everything to Stanford through this tournament, and on an occasion or two in the past three weeks, the Cardinal have needed her to be. She's averaging 28 points and 8.5 rebounds per game in the tournament. Her 39 points against South Carolina lifted the Cardinal into the Elite Eight.
Ogwumike's leadership and calm demeanor on the floor are the example that everyone on the Stanford bench follows.
It's all in the name of a title, which would be the program's first since 1992. Even if almost everyone expects her to be 0-for-4 after Sunday night's national semifinal (9 p.m. ET, ESPN) against Brittney Griner and Baylor.
Ogwumike hasn't discussed her desire to win a title much this season. She seemed to be downplaying it again on Saturday, avoiding the opportunity to talk directly about her team's quest to finally come away with the elusive national championship.
"Surprisingly enough, I'm very calm," Ogwumike said. "I was probably the most stressed maybe against South Carolina, I think. I was also pretty nervous before the Hampton game. But coming into the Final Four, I'm kind of taking it one day at a time, one minute at a time ...
"It's kind of tranquil for me right now. I'm not even worried. And I know when it comes down to it, when I step out onto the court, I just can go out there and have fun and play as hard as I can."
But Cardinal teammate Joslyn Tinkle said to assume Ogwumike doesn't want a championship badly is, well, a bad assumption.
"She doesn't flaunt it," Tinkle said. "I lot of people would be happy just coming to the Final Four. But she's not. But I think she would rather be about it than talk about it."
While the Cardinal minimize the title talk, the truth is, Stanford's last two attempts at a championship have been particularly tough to take for Ogwumike.
In 2010 in San Antonio, the Cardinal had a 20-12 lead on Connecticut at halftime in a title game that was ugly, but certainly going Stanford's way.
But an injured Jayne Appel went 0-for-12 from the floor for the game. Because of her off night, the Huskies were able to focus their attention on Ogwumike. Connecticut's Maya Moore asserted herself offensively in the second half and the Huskies won 53-47.
Last year, the Cardinal looked to be in position to win a title. They were loaded with experienced starters including Jeanette Pohlen and Kayla Pedersen. They had depth. They had the energy of new addition Chiney Ogwumike. And, perhaps most important, they had a 10-point lead late against Texas A&M. That was before the Aggies pressured the Cardinal into a stunning 63-62 loss in Indianapolis.
"Sophomore year was hard," Nneka said. "I was devastated. Last year was tough because we were the big dog. I cried a little, but it was more like 'Really? This is getting annoying.'"
Nneka, who won the 2012 Lowe's Senior Class Award on Saturday, has tried something different in her final season. No pressure. Just fun.
"This year I'm embracing every moment. I know, I'm a senior and that sounds cliché," Nneka said. "But this is about our team."
Chiney said winning the national championship would be "the ultimately going-away present" for her big sister.
But again, no pressure.
"It's the journey we are going to remember," Chiney said. "But I really do want this so bad for our seniors."
Nneka would simply like to say that she believes in her team and leave it at that.
"It's kind of not my style to talk about it a lot," Nneka said. "But it's always at the back of my mind. I think about it all the time and I know it's possible."
11dBonnie D. Ford