- Michelle Smith, Contributor, espnW.com
- 0 Shares
You won't find Chiney Ogwumike in a bowling alley. She's not going to race you the length of the pool, play golf or even "Temple Run."
"I will not play 'Words with Friends' with you," Ogwumike said. "I only want to do something if I can be successful at it."
It is hard to believe there's something that doesn't fit into that category for the charismatic Stanford junior forward, the young woman with the huge grin, mile-a-minute gift of gab and a knack for not only finding the best in herself, but drawing it out of other people.
As she turned 21 on Thursday, she is no longer defined solely as "Nneka's little sister." Chiney is a star in her own right, bursting out of the shadow of her All-America sibling this season, making the previously unthinkable argument that perhaps someone not named Brittney Griner could be in the conversation for national player of the year in college women's basketball.
Ogwumike's numbers this season are impressive and comparable to what Griner has done for Baylor. Ogwumike is the only player in the country to rank in the national top 10 in scoring (22.4 ppg, which ranks sixth), rebounding (13.1 rpg, fourth), field goal percentage (57.4, fifth) and double-doubles (26, first). She became the first woman to be named Pac-12 player and defensive player of the year in the same season.
"Every time Stanford needs a basket, she has an uncanny ability to find a shot or figure out a way to score," Colorado coach Linda Lappe said. "There is no question who the ball is going to, and you do whatever you can to stop her and you can't do it."
UCLA coach Cori Close said she can't count the number of video clips she has seen where Ogwumike is surrounded by three of four players under the basket. "And she still comes away with the ball," Close said. "She plays with a relentlessness that very few players have."
Oregon coach Paul Westhead said simply, "It's always her game and you are just responding."
Even Ogwumike's teammates shake their heads.
"Sometimes you don't really realize what she's doing game after game until you look up at the scoreboard at the end of the game and you think, '26 rebounds?' It's insane," senior Joslyn Tinkle said.
It can be argued that no individual player in the country has done more for her team than Ogwumike has done for the top-seeded Cardinal. It is without debate that Stanford would not be here, coming off a 31-2 season as a No. 1 seed for the fourth straight year, taking aim at a sixth straight Final Four berth, without her.
"I could not have asked her to do more," Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said. "And honestly, when the year started, I didn't know what to expect. Because I've never seen her without Nneka."
The Hall of Fame coach admitted she went through "an extended period of mourning" following Nneka Ogwumike's graduation.
The Ogwumike sisters were a force on the floor together for two collegiate seasons, complementing each other's games and personalities. And the sisters shared everything -- a car, a team, most of their spare time.
"I have so much free time now that I'm not around her, it's hilarious," Chiney says, laughing. "I didn't realize how much time we spent together until she left."
Her mother, Ify, said that Chiney went through a period of "readjustment and redefinintion" when Nneka left.
"Emotionally, it was a huge change for her because of that relationship," Ify Ogwumike said. "The closeness they have, when Nneka is involved in anything with Chiney, it's not that Chiney doesn't contribute to her fullest, but because of the respect she has, Chiney defers. Without Nneka around, Chiney is a natural leader. I was not at all concerned for Chiney."
Without Nneka, Chiney stepped forward in every way. As a scorer and rebounder, as a leader and a tone-setter. She became more disciplined and more dangerous.
"I was worried that she was going to need a lot more firepower around her," VanDerveer said. "She was so much a clean-up person. Nneka would miss a shot and [Chiney] would put it back. Somebody else would miss and she would get an offensive rebound. I didn't know she could shoot 58-60 percent. I didn't know that without another go-to person with her that she could carry us the way she had."
Chiney said the conversations began a week after last season ended, she and her teammates discussing how hard this team would have to work, how different it would be without Nneka and three other seniors. And that was before they knew that junior guard Toni Kokenis would miss large stretches of the season with an undisclosed illness.
"I thought, I just need to work and lay down in my bed at the end of the day and be happy with my effort," Chiney said. "I told myself to let my actions speak. Every game I had to figure out a way to establish myself. Because I know people thought of me only as Nneka's little sister. And I never thought that."
After the Baylor win in mid-November, the Cardinal got a big confidence boost. Picking up the nation's No. 1 ranking at that point didn't hurt, either.
But sometimes, the burden has been too heavy. Despite a double-double, she couldn't pull Stanford out of the funk that led to the ugly 61-35 loss to Connecticut in December, or the 67-55 loss two weeks later to Cal. Yet Ogwumike and Stanford steeled and went on to share the Pac-12 regular-season title with the Bears.
And Chiney had something of an epiphany last week when the Cardinal faced UCLA in the Pac-12 tournament final. She was struggling -- like she had never struggled in her college basketball career. Worn down physically after playing the previous two days in a row and taking the brunt of the defense's attention and body blows, she had just three points as the game entered its closing moments. Her shots weren't falling, and she came to the sideline during a timeout only to hear VanDerveer tell her that she couldn't do it all herself.
"I think my whole goal had been to be that one player that Tara could know what I was going to bring," Ogwumike said. "I don't know how I survived this long. For 31 games, I figured things out. But this 32nd game was a different beast."
Sophomore guard Amber Orrange was having the game of her young career and Ogwumike handed over the reins to a team that she has led all season long. Orrange willed Stanford to the 61-59 victory. No one was happier than Ogwumike.
"Sometimes you realize this is a team sport for a reason," Ogwumike said.
Tinkle is one of Ogwumike's closest friends. She said she was watching closely as the season began and Chiney was coming into her own.
"It was going to be hard," Tinkle said. "Chiney looked to Nneka for a lot of things, she was her rock and without that, I didn't really know how Chiney was going to handle certain situations. And I've been blown away. I can't say I'm surprised. But she's really matured as a player, and she's grown up alot."
The truth is, Chiney has played without Nneka before. She did it for two years in high school after her big sister graduated and it went pretty well -- she led her team to the state title in Texas and finished her senior season as the Gatorade national player of the year.
And history might be setting up for a repeat.
With Griner, Skylar Diggins and Elena Delle Donne moving on to the WNBA, the decks are clear for Ogwumike to be the most dominant player in college women's basketball next season. It will be her time.
"I loved coaching Nneka, and I never thought I would see anyone else's name in the same sentence as hers," VanDerveer said. "But Chiney is. She's a warrior. She battles, she's a fighter and I love her competitiveness.
"It's hard -- I can't be the president of the Chiney Fan Club because [associate head coach] Amy Tucker already is, but I want to be the treasurer, because that girl is going places. She is special in her own right."
While all eyes are focused on a certain trio of superstar seniors, no individual player in the country has done more for her team than Chiney Ogwumike has done for top-seeded Stanford.