- Michelle Smith, Contributor, espnW.com
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DENVER -- The sisterhood couldn't survive to play one more day.
Not with foul trouble and missed scoring opportunities and Baylor's stifling defense.
When Chiney Ogwumike fouled out with 7:39 to go, it was effectively over.
When it was officially over, Baylor having won 59-47 to advance to the national championship game (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN), Nneka Ogwumike called her team to center court. She talked to them in a close huddle, some of her teammates had tears in their eyes, but in that moment, Nneka did not.
And then she walked off the court with a smile.
Four trips to the Final Four and no titles. But Nneka just isn't the bitter type.
"It's tough, but at the same time, who can say they've been here four years?" Nneka said. "I know people will say 'You only say that because you lost,' but I'd like to see whoever is saying that who has been here four times.
One of the most athletic, graceful and elegant players to come to the women's game, Nneka finished her Cardinal career with a game-high 22 points and nine rebounds but with a heavy heart because it wasn't enough.
She couldn't do enough on this night in part because her teammates didn't do enough to complement her and in part because Baylor is just too good.
"Nneka didn't have enough help," said Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer.
Ironically, Stanford did what it came to do against Brittney Griner, who finished with 13 points and just three field goals. The scoring total was her second-lowest of the season. Three field goals matched her season-low.
VanDerveer drew up a game plan that worked as well as anything Griner and Baylor had seen. It worked because the Cardinal had the size and length to keep her away from the basket for much of the game.
But while they were bottling up Griner, other Baylor players such as reserve Terran Condrey (13 points) and Destiny Williams (10 rebounds) were doing incremental, but certain damage.
And on the offensive end, the Cardinal needed to hit outside shots and simply didn't.
Stanford was 20-of-60 from the field. Take away Nneka's nine field goals and the rest of the Cardinal starting lineup was 8-for-28. Many of those shots were contested and deep into the shot clock. Others were open and just didn't fall.
VanDerveer pointed to the free throws. Baylor was 19-of-26 from the line. Stanford 5-of-7.
"If you look at everything else, we made one more field goal than them, our assists are the same, our turnovers the same, we had more blocks than they did," VanDerveer said. "The main thing was we sent them to the free-throw line. And I don't think we should have with the game plan we had."
Perimeter shooting, so key to Stanford's plan for success, was even worse. The Cardinal were 2-of-17 from beyond the 3-point arc.
"We didn't make shots that we usually make," said junior Joslyn Tinkle, who was 1-for-6 from the floor. "I know there was a little pressure on us because of their inside game. We hit a couple of those shots and it changes the game."
So in its fifth straight trip to the Final Four, Stanford goes home empty-handed again. And Baylor goes to the title game against Notre Dame.
It was a 15-3 run in the second half that allowed Baylor to distance itself from Stanford's game attempt. The game was tied 31-31 and eight minutes later it was 46-34 and the Cardinal were scrambling.
When Chiney fouled out for the second year in a row in the national semifinals (the first Stanford player to foul out this season), Nneka couldn't carry the load alone.
"Sitting on the sidelines, seeing her fight to the finish, I'm just so proud of her," Chiney said of her big sister. "She left everything on the table. I think she was the most dominant person on this court."
The sisters cried a little and hugged when Nneka came off the floor with 34 seconds to go. They are likely finished playing together.
Nneka will move on, presumably as the No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft to the Los Angeles Sparks. And this Stanford team will become Chiney's. She will be its leader.
And she'll have big shoes to fill.
As the locker room was preparing to close to media Sunday night, Nneka sat with her teammates and assistant coach Kate Paye. As Paye talked into Nneka's ear she looked to be fighting off tears again.
"She is sentimental. She was crying because it's the last time she'll wear the Stanford jersey. Not for the game," Chiney said. "She gave her all in every game this year."
15dBonnie D. Ford