Last week the Stanford women’s basketball team finished off a busy holiday break with two wins over the Oregon schools at Maples Pavilion. Since students headed home at the end of finals, the team has played, and won, seven straight games and sits alone atop the Pac-12 standings.
The stretch also saw a host of Cardinal players set personal records. Against Princeton, sophomore forward Chiney Ogwumike put up 21 points before her sister, senior forward Nnemkadi, bettered that with 42 points against Tennessee. Sophomore guard Toni Kokenis also scored 26 points, including five three-pointers, against the Lady Volunteers. In the following game, versus Cal State Bakersfield, junior forward Joslyn Tinkle grabbed a career-best double-double with 20 points and 11 rebounds, and freshman forward Erica Payne scored 12 points. Then, in the first-ever Pac-12 game played on Maples Pavilion’s hardwood, freshman forwards Taylor Greenfield and Bonnie Samuelson notched 17 points on five three-pointers and 18 points on six threes, respectively.
However, No. 4 Stanford (13-1, 4-0 Pac-12) did not have everything its own way over the break, and it had to battle hard to keep its home winning streak intact, pushed all the way in the very first game, against Princeton, and the very last, against Oregon State.
Lining up shorter than the Card, unranked Princeton showed its determination by out-rebounding Stanford in the early part of the game the Saturday after finals. The Tigers refused to be bowed by their more prestigious opponents, and each time it looked like the home team was pulling away, Princeton responded. In the second half, though, the Cardinal began to pull ahead, and as its opponents struggled with fouls, the challenge began to fall away and Stanford sealed an 85-66 victory.
“I thought [Princeton’s] pace was great, I thought they were scrappy, and if Nneka and Chiney had been on their team, we would have gotten blasted,” said Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer after the game. “We need other people stepping up.”
Perhaps VanDerveer’s challenge to her other players worked, because Kokenis played a major role in turning a nine-point deficit into a strong 97-80 victory over No. 6 Tennessee in the team’s next game.
“I think this was a breakout game for Toni,” VanDerveer commented after the game. “We know she’s capable of that, but to knock down her threes, to run the offense. For us to have two turnovers at halftime says something about great point guard play.”
The headline story from that game, though, was not Kokenis’ performance but the 42-point, 17-rebound starring role of Nnemkadi Ogwumike.
“This was one of the most incredible individual performances that I’ve ever seen on this court,” VanDerveer said, “and I just want to congratulate Nneka for really putting our team on her back. She was a woman with girls out there. She just dominated in a way I’ve never seen. You could say she was in a zone, but this is how she’s been practicing, and this is how she’s been competing and leading.”
Two days later Stanford welcomed Bakersfield to the Farm and taught the newcomers to Division I basketball a difficult lesson in a 90-48 rout. Against weaker opposition, and with a 30-point lead already by the half, VanDerveer used the opportunity to rest her starters and give others a real chance to shine. Even without those usual players, the Roadrunners were still no match for the Cardinal and performances by Tinkle and Payne.
“This was without Nneka,” VanDerveer said. “This was playing without Chiney a lot. Other people stepped up, and that’s what our team is all about. If we wanna win the Pac-12, its not gonna be just Nneka or just Toni.”
After a short break for Christmas, Stanford then headed down to Los Angeles to finish off the year with its first-ever outings in the new Pac-12 Conference. First up was USC, and just like after the break for finals, the Cardinal seemed to be lacking some sharpness in a narrow 61-53 victory. Although Stanford led through most of the game, the Trojans came back from a 10-point deficit in the first half to tie the game midway through the second, and it was only in the last five minutes that the Cardinal managed to stabilize its lead and fend off the challenge from the Trojans.
Crossing the city to face UCLA on New Year’s Eve, the Card enjoyed an easier contest after a close first few minutes, leading the Bruins by 17 points at the half to set up a comfortable 77-50 rout. Both Ogwumike sisters posted double-doubles, and Stanford comfortably outshot UCLA from the floor with almost double the Bruins’ shooting accuracy. The Cardinal also grabbed almost twice as many boards as the Bruins, 49 to 27, and four times as many assists, 19 to 5.
Returning to the Farm last week, Stanford seized the chance to take away some of the Ducks’ Rose Bowl-winning high with a dominant 93-70 victory. Oregon attempted to nullify the Ogwumike sisters’ dominance in the paint by forcing the Card to shoot from outside, but against the three-point abilities of Greenfield and Samuelson, it didn’t work: the pair hit 11 shots from beyond the arc.
“They did a good job of containing the inside,” Nnemkadi Ogwumike said, “but our perimeter shooting really opened it up, and that’s always a lot of relief for the post.”
Even against this strategy, one that in theory should diminish her effect, Nnemkadi Ogwumike still managed to make a major impact on this contest, grabbing a double-double and 32 points of her own.
“I thought we did a terrific job on Nneka,” said Oregon head coach Paul Westhead. “She’s a pretty good player. She had 32 points, and we did a good job.”
Facing Oregon State, a team Stanford has never lost to in 25 home games and that was coming off three losses in four games, the Cardinal could have been forgiven for expecting an easier ride, not a narrow 67-60 win.
In the first few minutes, the Stanford defense looked to be having a real effect on the Beavers, but as the half wore on, the strategy seemed to be coming apart. Oregon State was hitting over 60 percent from the field while the Card was not making its own possessions count, and it slipped back from an eight-point lead to trail by four. A better second half and double-double performances from Nnemkadi—who also broke into the 1,000-rebound and 2,000-point clubs in this game—and Chiney Ogwumike turned the tide, but the Beavers pushed Stanford to the end, halving a 14-point gap by the final buzzer.
“I think this was a wakeup call for our team,” VanDerveer said. “How important it is to every team coming up against Stanford. I can’t say I was really excited about how we played, but I was excited about how Nneka and Chiney battled.”
The break schedule has made it clear that while in this young team there is serious potential, Stanford is not yet the finished unit that it could be. The Card will need to keep growing up fast if it hopes to add more silverware to its cabinet now that the long Pac-12 schedule is in full flow. Next up is a trip to the conference’s new additions at Utah on Thursday and then Colorado on Saturday.