The Stanford women’s basketball team will be heading to its fifth straight Final Four in the NCAA Tournament next weekend after defeating Duke 81-69 in the Fresno Regional Final on Monday.
The Cardinal (35-1) reached the Final Four once again with a hard-fought victory over the Blue Devils (27-6). Though Duke was down 15 points down at halftime, the east coast team rallied after the break to close to within eight and frustrate both the Stanford players and the large crowd of Cardinal fans in attendance. It could get no closer, though, and after a tight few minutes Stanford pulled back comfortably ahead.
“I think for every answer they had for us, we had two,” senior forward Nnemkadi Ogwumike explained. “And I think that’s kind of what happened towards the last seven minutes of the game.”
National Player of the Year contender Nnemkadi Ogwumike scored 29 points to lead the team once again and continue her ridiculous postseason scoring pace. Sophomore forward Chiney Ogwumike, who was named a Defensive Player of the Year finalist yesterday, grabbed another double-double, her 16th of the season, with a huge 17 rebounds and 12 points. Junior forward Joslyn Tinkle and freshman guard Amber Orrange also added double figures points hauls, with 13 apiece.
The Blue Devils also had four players in double figures on points, led by sophomore guard Chelsea Gray’s 23, but even with a couple of quick threes in the last 20 seconds, ultimately fell 12 points short. Interestingly, it also outscored the Cardinal in the paint 40-32 as Stanford shot from outside. Against South Carolina on Saturday the Card made just one attempt from downtown, but last night went 7-18 on from beyond the arc.
Stanford took hold of the game early on, running out to double Duke’s points 28-14 with 7:42 remaining in the first period. The Blue Devils, though, responded with a 7-2 run as the Cardinal went flat for several minutes. Chiney Ogwumike subbed out with her second foul and older sister Nneka left the floor temporarily after a heavy fall. However, the Duke momentum was reversed with an 8-2 run in the last three minutes before the break and the Card headed to the lockers in command of the contest.
The Blue Devils, though, were not yet done with their season and responded after the half by pressing the Card deep into its own court and giving in no time or space on offense. This worked up to a point, narrowing the margin, but the Devils eventually had to resort to fouling in a vain attempt to stop the Cardinal’s powerful attack in the paint.
“First of all, I am really, really proud of our team,” Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer said. “At the beginning of the season if you asked me if this was a Final Four team, I don’t know if I would have answered yes.”
“It has been a gutsy performance by people all year long,” VanDerveer continued. “And to go the next step you have to keep playing well. I thought we played really well defensively for the most part tonight; we’re constantly knocking down shots keeping it exciting.”
Stanford now heads to Denver, where it will face the top ranked program in the nation, Baylor, next Sunday. The Lady Bears continued its undefeated run this season with a 77-58 victory over Tennessee. Star player junior post Brittney Griner was ejected at the end of the game when she came off the bench to intervene in an altercation between her teammate sophomore guard Odyssey Sims and the Lady Volunteers’ senior guard Shekinna Stricklen, but the NCAA confirmed that no further action would be taken and she would be allowed to play on Sunday.
“I feel like everybody but me has played against her [Brittney Griner],” Nneka Ogwumike said about the upcoming matchup between the two National Player of the Year contenders. “She’s obviously a really great player and our coaches do an awesome job of preparing us, and I don’t doubt that we’ll be more than prepared when we play on Sunday.”
“It’s great to have a challenge like this, so I’m excited,” she added. “I played against [Griner] in high school once. That’s when I learned to shoot a three.”
The NCAA semifinals are due to be played at 3:30 p.m. and 6 p.m. PT at the Pepsi Center in Denver on Sunday.