Palo Alto Weekly

Sports - March 16, 2012

Ogwumike sisters lead Stanford into yet another NCAA opener

by Rick Eymer

There is a two-year age gap between sisters Nnemkadi Ogwumike and Chiney Ogwumike and you'd almost swear they were twins, or at least best friends. When they play as one on the basketball court, which they often do, it's simply a beautiful thing to watch.

Second-ranked Stanford (31-1) depends on the Ogwumike's for most of its offensive production and defensive intensity. There are games, though, in which the entire team is engaged and playing in synch and those are the days when the Cardinal, seeded first in the Fresno Region of the NCAA tournament, resembles a national championship-caliber squad.

Stanford coach and Hall of Famer Tara VanDerveer has been to the mountain top, though it's been 20 years since she was able to hoist the championship trophy. The road to the Final Four in Denver this season is fraught with intrigue, peril and hidden traps, yet more than any other team in women's college basketball, the Cardinal understands what it takes to navigate the twists and turns.

Is this the year Stanford finally punches its way back to the top? That will depend, of course, if the Ogwumike's supporting cast will step up and get into synch.

"Studying and school come first," Nneka Ogwumike said. "But there is no possible way to ignore March Madness. It's exciting no matter what. This is the most exciting time of the year."

The journey begins Saturday when the Cardinal takes on Hampton at 10:40 a.m. (ESPN2) at the Ted Constant Convocation Center in Norfolk, Va. Stanford earned the No. 1 seed in the Fresno Regional. The Lady Pirates (26-4), winners of three consecutive MEAC titles, will make the short drive to nearby Old Dominion.

"We don't mind going to Old Dominion," VanDerveer said. "It's a place with a great basketball tradition. It's a major incentive to win down there and come back and play here."

"Just put us anywhere, I don't care," Ogwumike added. "As long as we are playing basketball. The legacy builds every day, with every team and it's not over yet."

A victory against Hampton would set up a meeting with either Texas or West Virginia on Monday, also in Norfolk.

Two wins and Stanford would advance to the Sweet 16 in Fresno and a possible matchup with fifth-seeded South Carolina or fourth-seeded Purdue a week from Saturday.

"The brackets seem balanced because there are a lot more good teams," VanDerveer said. "Our bracket is full of great teams like Duke, Purdue and St. John's, who go into UConn and beat UConn. You know they're a great team."

The Elite Eight, should Stanford accept its mission, would likely mean a game against No. 2 Duke, No. 3 St. John's or No. 6 Oklahoma.

An intriguing matchup could occur in the national semifinal if overall No. 1 seed Baylor and Stanford hold serve. The Bears (34-0) seem to be everybody's favorite to win the national title and become the first team ever to win 40 games in a season.

"Last year no one thought Texas A&M would win," VanDerveer said. "Baylor is a great team and (Brittany) Griner is a great player and a tremendous talent. I hope we have a chance to play them."

The trip to Norfolk is the first time since 2001 that Stanford plays a tournament game east of the Rocky Mountains to open the tournament. The Cardinal opened in 2001 in Norman, Okla.

The last time Stanford began the tournament in the Eastern Time Zone was the 2000 tournament, when the Cardinal traveled to Athens, Ga. and lost to the host Bulldogs in the second round.

Stanford has a record of 11-4 in first- and second-round NCAA Tournament games away from home.

Key players for Stanford include sophomore guard Toni Kokenis, named to the All-Pac-12 team and earning All-Defensive Team honorable mention. She averages 9.5 points and 3.66 assists per game and ranks among the national leaders with a 2.34 assist-to-turnover ratio.

Junior Joslyn Tinkle has recorded a pair of double-doubles this season, reached double figures in scoring 10 times and is enjoying one of the best seasons ever at the free throw line, making 89 percent of her fouls shots, third best in school history.

Freshman Amber Orrange, also a Texas product, had a big game against California. She also enjoyed a nice game in the season-opening win at Texas. She needs to be a consistent presence against pressure defense and should continue to go strong to the basket, as she did against the Bears.

The Cardinal also need quality minutes from redshirt junior center Sarah Boothe, freshman forward Taylor Greenfield, senior guard Lindy La Rocque and freshman forward Bonnie Samuelson.

The Lady Pirates have won 11 straight after beating Howard, 54-53, on Saturday for their third straight MEAC tournament title. Hampton is making its third straight NCAA appearance and sixth overall.

While Stanford features the Ogwumike sisters from Texas, the Lady Pirates feature a pair of senior guards from Texas.

Jericka Jenkins leads the team in scoring with 14.0 points a game, and is second in the nation with 7.2 assists per contest. Jenkins, the MEAC Tournament Most Outstanding Player and First Team All-MEAC selection, has 217 assists this season, second-most in program history.

Choicetta McMillian averages 13.6 points per game, and has 86 of her 238 3-pointers this season.

Stanford, making its 25th straight NCAA appearance, enters the game on a program-best 28-game winning streak, last losing (68-58) at Connecticut on Nov. 21.

This will be the first-ever meeting between Hampton and Stanford, and just the second time the Pirates have played a team from the Pac-12. California won a 67-60 home contest on Dec. 21, 2005.

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