The No. 4 Stanford women’s basketball team (28-2, 17-1 Pac-12) embarks on its postseason journey today, seeking a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and its first national championship since 1992, as it takes on Colorado in the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 Tournament.
“We’ve worked really hard all year to put ourselves in the position to get a No. 1 seed and we want to keep the most favorable route in the NCAA tournament,” said senior forward Chiney Ogwumike.
The Card captured their 14th consecutive Pac-12 conference title this season and look to win the double honor of the Pac-12 Tournament crown as well. With No. 9 seed Colorado beating the 2013 Pac-12 Tournament runner-ups, UCLA, in the first round of the tournament on Thursday, the Card will take on the Buffs for the first time since Jan. 12.
Last season, head coach Tara VanDerveer begged for contributions from the bench and stronger leadership on the court from players besides Ogwumike. This season’s team has answered those pleas.
“I do think we have a lot more contributions, a lot more depth,” VanDerveer said. “We’re more rested. We’re very excited to go up to Seattle…Eighteen games is a long grind and a lot of traveling and now we’re going to play three games for everything. We’re ready and we’re going to play really well.”
In addition to the dominant play of Ogwumike — who has contributed an average of 27.0 points and 12.1 rebounds per game — junior point guard Amber Orrange has stepped up considerably, averaging 10.1 points, 4.7 assists and 1.6 steals per game. Orrange has been the conductor of the Stanford offense, pushing the ball in transition and knocking down shots when needed most.
“When we play fast and have a really good pace, we play well,” Ogwumike said. “That means that we’re playing aggressively because we want to set the momentum for the game.”
The freshmen have been instrumental in setting the pace of the game, both as starters and from the bench, providing Orrange and fifth-year senior Mikaela Ruef with solid time to rest. Lili Thompson has solidified her starting position as guard and backup point guard, while classmate Erica McCall has come in off the bench to complement the dominant rebounding of Ruef and Ogwumike and to play aggressor. It was against Colorado earlier in the season that Karlie Samuelson proved herself to be a threat from behind the 3-point line (5-of-8 shooting from 3) and in finishing at the basket off of backdoor cuts.
“If our season was a year-long season, we would keep progressing,” Ogwumike said. “Our freshmen are all maturing and affecting our game now in great ways…Those little things are going to be big for us, having to play three games in three days and into the NCAA tournament.”
Although Stanford had great success in conference play this year, falling only at Washington, the Pac-12 teams have proved to be unpredictable in the standings and inconsistent at times; the final conference standings differ greatly from the preseason polls. The biggest surprises have been Oregon State, which rose to the No. 3 seed in the tournament, and Arizona State, which broke the top 25 at the start of Pac-12 play and has maintained that position.
This season’s unpredictability has been due in large part to the league’s strong freshman class, including that of the Cardinal. But the team that has benefited the most from a new player is Washington, which boasts Pac-12 Freshman of the Year Kelsey Plum. Plum demonstrated how powerful a new player can be to a team’s lineup, becoming one of the only players this year to manage consecutive 20-point games against the Card.
“It’s hard to predict how well freshmen are going to do in this league; first of all, they’re 18 years old, and two, this league is really tough and to come out and try to be a good freshman is very difficult,” said Pac-12 Networks analyst Tammy Blackburn. “I thought she would probably be shut down quicker than she was and she just hasn’t been, and it speaks to her ability to adjust to an elite level of play and that bodes well for both her and for Washington.”
Another surprise in the Pac-12 this season was the inability of Colorado to rally after losing leading scorer and team leader Chucky Jeffery to graduation last year. Projected to finish third in the Pac-12 at the start of the season, the Buffs only managed a No. 9 seed going into the Pac-12 Tournament. Colorado will have a chance to redeem its entire season if it can force the upset over Stanford, not an impossibility after it gave the Card a tight game in Boulder.
“[Colorado has] a really good chance to go up to Seattle and do some things because of the way they’ve played the last five games,” Blackburn said. “They’re really looking more like the Colorado team we’ve been waiting to see.”
Against the Cardinal two months ago, the Buffs trailed by as many as 19 points in the second half. However, they rallied late in the game to make it a three-possession game with only a minute to play. Tight full-court pressure defense and double-digit scoring by four players allowed the Buffs to come back and give Stanford a close game. With the continued dominant play of former Pac-12 Freshman of the Year Arielle Roberson, who chipped in 19 points against the Card, Colorado has the opportunity to capitalize off its recent dominant play and do some damage.
For Stanford, securing a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and staying healthy remain the top goals this weekend.
“We are not focusing on wins, because when you’re focusing on wins you’re putting a lot of pressure on yourself,” Ogwumike said. “I think we’re focusing on playing well and playing hard and focusing on every possession and just playing well.”
“It’s not just the team that is the best who wins the NCAA Tournament,” she added, “but the team playing the best at that time.”
Tip-off against Colorado is at noon in Seattle at Key Arena.
Contact Ashley Westhem at awesthem ‘at’ stanford.edu.