By Rick Eymer
Palo Alto Online Sports
Stanford All-American senior center Jayne Appel remembers Nnemkadi Ogwumike being quiet when they were introduced during Ogwumike's recruiting visit three years ago.
Appel, who averages 13.6 points and 8.7 rebounds a game for the second-ranked Cardinal women's basketball team, makes it a point to chat it up with the recruits.
"I'm always trying to tell them why Stanford would be a great place to go," Appel said. "A lot of recruits are quiet when they visit. Neka was real quiet, maybe not as quiet as Kayla (Pedersen) was the year before, but she was pretty quiet."
Ogwumike must be a quick study though. After a year of watching Appel gain first team All-America status and earning Pac-10 Player of the Year honors, Ogwumike flourished in her second year on The Farm as opposing teams keyed on Appel, who started the season slowly because of offseason surgery.
Ogwumike (19.2, 9.6) became Appel's heir apparent as she played her way to the Pac-10 Player of the Year award and All-America honors this season, and she's one of the regulars at post-game media sessions. Just like Jayne.
"It's great how she's developed into a tremendous leader for our team," Appel said.
Pedersen gave short, one-word answers during her recruiting trip to Stanford. If Pedersen had her way, Appel thought, she wouldn't have uttered a word.
These days the 'Big Three' have become quite the talkers, and ambassadors of Stanford basketball. It's hard for Cardinal fans to think of playing without one of them.
Pedersen (15.9, 9.3) has taken full advantage of her playing skills to keep other teams from trying to pack it in and stop the inside threat. She's made nearly 38 percent of her 3-point attempts (52-138) and is an 83.4 percent free throw (126-of-151) shooter.
Appel and Ogwumike were named to AP's All-America second team earlier this week. Pedersen was an honorable mention. Now all three will be trying to keep Stanford's national championship bid alive on Sunday when the Cardinal (35-1) meets No. 12 Oklahoma (27-10) at 4 p.m. (PDT) in the first of two national semifinal games at San Antonio's Alamodome.
Top-ranked and defending NCAA champion Connecticut (37-0) meets Baylor (27-9) in the later semifinal. Both games will be televised by ESPN.
The Sooners enjoyed their easiest game of the tournament in beating Kentucky, 88-68, to reach the Final Four. They needed overtime to beat Notre Dame in the Sweet Sixteen after knocking off South Dakota State by 11 and Arkansas-Little Rock by 16.
Stanford, outside of its loss to Connecticut this year, had its toughest test of the year in beating Xavier, 55-53, in Sacramento. The Cardinal handled UC Riverside, Iowa and Georgia by a combined 98 points.
Baylor's journey began in Berkeley, where the Bears beat Fresno State by 14 and Georgetown by 16 before knocking off top-seeded Tennessee, 77-62, and No. 2 seed Duke, 51-48.
The Huskies reached the Final Four, winning four times, by a combined margin of 187 points, or an average score of 87.3 to 40.2.
"I feel like we've been given a new basketball life," Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said. "I watched Jeanette Pohlen's play and the two missed layups over in my mind a million times. We saw the season pass before our eyes. It was over. We're thankful to be playing, and appreciative of going to San Antonio. I'm sure the team will make the absolute most of it."
Oklahoma is sure to be making the most of it, as well. The Lady Sooners may have 10 losses, but they've played NCAA tournament teams for more than half their schedule. And they have reversed several of those losses to be where they are.
Oklahoma's losses have been to Georgia (very early in the season), Notre Dame, Tennessee, Baylor, Iowa State, Texas, Connecticut, Nebraska and Texas A&M (twice).
The Lady Sooners are 12-10 against the NCAA field, and that includes wins over Notre Dame, Baylor, Texas and Texas A&M.
"There are more similarities than differences between the teams," VanDerveer said. "It's a great matchup and it should make for a real exciting game. Oklahoma has great guard play and they have been there before."
Appel has played against Oklahoma's 5-9 junior guard Danielle Robinson, a Mitty High product, as has Pohlen. Robinson and Pohlen were opposing guards in the California state high school championship game several years ago. Appel goes back a little further.
"I played with her in 10-under or 11-under," Appel said. "She's always been like a lightning bolt. I also played against her in high school."
Ros Gold-Onwude played the last time Stanford and Oklahoma met, in the Sweet Sixteen in 2006.
"I remember that game very well; it was the biggest game I had played in and we won," the fifth-year senior said. "I was the starting point guard and I knew they would sag off me and I was able to hit a shot right away. But they are a completely different team now."
Robinson and Nyeshia Stevenson, for example, may be the best guard tandem Stanford plays all season. They are Oklahoma's top two scorers, averaging a combined 31.1 points a game.
Amanda Thompson averages a double-double with 13.1 points and 10.6 rebounds, while Abi Olajuwon (yes, the daughter of former NBA star Hakeem) averages 10.7 points and 7.3 rebounds.
"Oklahoma has a lot of great players," Pedersen said. "They are well-balanced both inside and outside. They are fast, physical and definitely a Final Four team."
Stanford's hopes still depend on Appel's ability to play through a sore ankle. The Cardinal is a different team without her in the lineup. It showed at the end of the Xavier game when Musketeers' guard Dee Dee Jernigan was left unguarded twice underneath the basket in the final seconds.
(As a side note, Xavier redshirt junior Amber Harris announced Wednesday she would return for a final year with the Musketeers; bad news for any team other than Xavier).
Appel is also an inspirational leader and often carries the Cardinal through difficult stretches.
Appel and Ogwumike, VanDerveer said, were a little tentative against Xavier's 'Twin Towers,' and that wasn't acceptable.
"There's a lesson there," VanDerveer said. "We need them to do what they've been doing all season and that's being aggressive. Neka has, basically, shot 65 percent all year and she was 5-for-17? That's not going to cut it."
Stanford set a school record with its 26th consecutive win Monday night, and will be looking to break a tie for most wins in a season when it takes the court Sunday. A 37th victory will be even better.