W. Basketball: Freshmen rising to the occasion

Feb. 24, 2011, 3:04 a.m.

The Stanford women’s basketball team returns to the Farm after knocking off the Los Angeles schools last weekend in its final road trip, securing itself a first-round bye in the Pac-10 Tournament in the process.

The No. 2 Cardinal (24-2, 15-0 Pac-10) knocked off USC, 78-64, on Friday night, then rallied to beat No. 9 UCLA, 67-53.

Freshman forward Chiney Ogwumike (above) had 18 points and 15 rebounds while filling in for her sister, Nnemkadi, in a win over No. 9 UCLA (SIMON WARBY/ The Stanford Daily)

The two victories solidified the Cardinal’s spot atop the Pac-10 conference, helping it to a 2.5 game lead over UCLA with just three games left in conference play.

Stanford was without star forward Nnemkadi Ogwumike in Sunday’s contest with the Bruins, and the Cardinal freshmen rose to the occasion.

Freshman forward Chiney Ogwumike did her best sister act, rolling to 18 points and 15 rebounds, while freshman guard Toni Kokenis had 13 points, two assists and three steals.

“Our young players really stepped up,” said head coach Tara VanDerveer. “Chiney really put the hammer down, she scored inside, rebounded and got to the free throw line, and Toni Kokenis came in and gave us a big lift.”

Despite a shaky start, Chiney Ogwumike’s 13 points in the second half showed that despite her youth, she could rise to the occasion at any time.

“We knew we made a lot of mistakes in the first half. We weren’t playing as well as we could have, and we weren’t being as aggressive as we could have been,” Ogwumike said. “[VanDerveer] told me, you’re going be the one to go on the block and go to work.”

Ogwumike also mentioned that games where the Cardinal is missing a star player can be a blessing in disguise, especially because the team has been a little slow out of the gates lately.

“[Struggles] are part of what happens midseason for a team, and I think that losing an integral person in a game keeps us on our straight track,” Ogwumike said. “It keeps us motivated, and we do things based on our teamwork, not based off of our individual capacities.”

The Cardinal’s next challenge will be against the Oregon schools once again, with the Oregon Ducks coming into Maples Pavilion first on Thursday night.

The Ducks (12-13, 3-11 Pac-10) look to be the Cardinal’s next victim, as the girls from Eugene have lost nine of their last 10 games dating back to Jan. 13.

Oregon has two potent scoring threats in guard Nia Jackson and forward Amanda Jackson, who average 17.0 and 16.4 points per game, respectively. However, even with the one-two punch of Jackson and Johnson, the Ducks shoot just 37.6 percent from the floor and give up 76.6 points per game.

Last time against the Ducks, Stanford cruised to a 91-56 win, with Oregon shooting 25.0 percent on the game and a dreadful 3-for-32 from three.

Additionally, Chiney Ogwumike, one of the freshman heroes from this weekend, had 18 points and 12 rebounds in the trip to Eugene.

Despite her confidence in the team’s ability and her dominant play in lieu of her sister, Chiney Ogwumike said that she still feels that she has a lot to learn in this postseason run, but has a strategy for getting better.

“I still feel heavily like a freshman at all times,” she said. “In the games, the only way I can get my mental capacity is by telling myself…it’s players against players, not class against class.”

Ogwumike also said that now that the Cardinal had a little distance ahead of UCLA, they could relax and play their best basketball.

“At this point, we know that not all games are guaranteed, we know that we want to win a Pac-10 championship, we want to win a Pac-10 tournament championship and we want to win a national championship,” Ogwumike said. “Basically, clinching the bye, yeah, we are almost there, but we still have to execute. There’s not a lot of time left, so we just want to pull it together soon.”

And although Ogwumike and VanDerveer both have suggested that this team still has a way to go to live up to their perfectionistic standards, the Cardinal bumped its way up to No. 2 in the national polls this weekend — behind No. 1 UConn, who the Card has already beaten this season.

Ogwumike said the snub for the number one spot was not in the Cardinal’s mind heading down the stretch.

“I think that everything’s due in time, it’d be nice to have it, but it’s not what we’re worried about,” she said.

The Cardinal and Ducks tip off Thursday night’s contest at 7 p.m. in Maples Pavilion.

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