By Rick Eymer
Palo Alto Online Sports
They've already discussed attending each other's weddings and baby showers and they have yet to graduate from Stanford. The Cardinal women's basketball team formed such a strong bond that junior Nnemkadi Ogwumike said she already knows these are forever friends.
"They are fun to be around," Ogwumike said of her teammates. "It's not just basketball. We like hanging out together and talking about how we will be at each other's weddings. It's just a close relationship."
Ogwumike thinks that relationship will come in handy as top-seeded and second-ranked Stanford (31-2) prepares for its Sweet Sixteen appearance against fifth-seeded and 14th-ranked North Carolina (27-8) in Spokane's Veterans Memorial Arena at 8:30 p.m. Saturday (ESPN2).
In a nod to ever increasing parity in women's basketball, the other regional semifinal features seventh-seeded Louisville (22-12) and 11th seeded Gonzaga (30-4) at 6 p.m.
The winners meet Monday, at 6 p.m. (ESPN2), to determine a berth in the Final Four.
The Cardinal beat St. John's, 75-49, this past Monday to reach the Sweet 16. Stanford, winner of 25 straight, outscored the Red Storm, 61-27, over the final 29:47.
Stanford's senior class won all 63 regular-season games played at Maples Pavilion, one of three teams in the country to have accomplished that. Tennessee and Connecticut are the others.
"You want to play with them and for them," Ogwumike said of her teammates. "Our team captains do a great job of including everybody. We need that accountability."
The senior class actually did experience a loss at home: a 97-62 exhibition defeat to USA Basketball in November of 2007. The regular-season streak started with a 96-61 win over USF and included an overtime victory against Tennessee, which eventually beat the Cardinal for the 2008 national crown.
Ogwumike is one of the tri-captains with seniors Kayla Pedersen and Jeanette Pohlen. All three have played vital roles in developing team chemistry over the past few years.
"We've talked about this from day one how deep this team is and how each player has created a role for themselves on the court and with the team," Ogwumike said.
As Stanford plays deeper into the tournament, depth may serve as the X-factor. With everybody involved, it only makes sense for bench players to be accepted into the fold. Even senior Hannah Donaghe, out all year with a torn ACL, has her role: running the 3-point double high fives along the bench.
Sophomore Mikaela Ruef played 22 minutes against St. John's, showing off her 3-point shooting ability, her ability to finish strong and draw the foul, and her passing ability.
Freshman Toni Kokenis is one of the first players off the bench and Melanie Murphy, Sarah Boothe and Joslyn Tinkle are involved in the rotation.
Ogwumike, with fellow 6-footers Chiney Ogwumike, Pedersen and Pohlen, has a chance to work against other talented 6-footers like Ruef, Boothe, Tinkle and Ashley Cimino.
That will come in handy when Stanford meets the Tar Heels, who feature five players between 6-0 and 6-6.
"Those guys challenge us every day," Ogwumike said of Stanford's talented reserves, some of whom (like Ruef) were state players of the year or among the very best. "They're aggressive, they don't let us make our favorite moves and they are so good about preparing that they often know our opponents better than we do. We're confident any time one of them goes into the game. They are as good as we are."
North Carolina brings one of the better heart-warming stories to Spokane in the form of 6-foot-3 senior Jessica Breland. She missed last season while receiving treatment for Hodgkin's lymphoma. After being diagnosed in the spring of 2009, Breland spent six months undergoing chemotherapy at UNC Hospitals. She remains under close monitoring.
North Carolina, which won the national championship in 1994, and is coached by veteran Sylvia Hatchell (859 wins, three-time national Coach of the Year), even has its own Nicole Powell, a 5-10 senior guard.
The Tar Heels also feature 6-5 Chay Shegog, 6-6 Waltiea Rolle, 6-1 Laura Broomfield and 6-0 guard Krista Gross.
"Right now is the best time to be playing your best basketball," said Gross, who had 14 points and 10 rebounds in their 86-74 victory over Kentucky. We know what to expect now. All the anxiety and nerves are gone and now our focus turns back to just basketball."
North Carolina opened the season with 14 consecutive victories and finished the regular season with a four-game losing streak. The Tar Heels have won six of seven in the postseason.
Italee Lucas, a 5-8 senior guard who played at
Centennial High in Las Vegas, leads the Tar Heels with a 16.7 scoring average. Stanford junior Lindy La Rocque played at Durango High, about 20 miles south of Centennial.
Stanford and North Carolina have met once before; in the NCAA Sweet 16 in 1995. The Cardinal ended the Tar Heels' season with an 81-71 victory in Los Angeles. Current assistant coach Kate Paye was then a senior guard for Stanford.
The Cardinal last played an NCAA Tournament game in Spokane when Pedersen and Pohlen were freshmen.
"My favorite memory from that trip was the Maryland game," Pedersen said. "How hyped we were for it, how Candice (Wiggins) led the way. Jeanette and I really wanted to go back. It's a special place for us."
Stanford beat Maryland, 98-89, to reach the Final Four. Wiggins scored 41 points, JJ Hones added 23 and Pedersen added 15. Pohlen played 10 minutes.
Pederson, Pohlen and Neka Ogwumike now lead the way with a strong cast that hopes to be starring at the Final Four in Indianapolis next weekend. For Stanford, it's all about team and teamwork -- something at which the Cardinal excels.