For the Stanford women’s basketball team, it’s fair to say that the challenge ahead in the Final Four couldn’t be any more mountainous.
Playing in its fifth consecutive Final Four, the Cardinal (35-1) heads to Denver in the contest many have been hoping for all season. Undefeated and ranked No. 1 since the preseason, the Baylor Bears (38-0) possess the perhaps most talked about player in the last few years of women’s basketball, junior post Brittney Griner. Standing at 6-foot-8, she towers over the opposition and has season averages of 23.4 points and 9.4 rebounds per game, as well as a staggering 199 blocks, an average of 5.2 per game, over the year.
Stanford’s own National Payer of the Year contender, senior forward Nnemkadi Ogwumike, in comparison, has similar averages of 22.5 points and 10.3 rebounds per game, but has just 39 blocks, or 1.1 per game. In four tournament games, Griner has posted 97 points, while Ogwumike has made 112 and shows no fear of what she and her team may be up against.
“Its not everyday that you play against someone like her,” Ogwumike said. “I’m excited. Like I said before I feel like I’m the only person in the country that hasn’t played against her, and I look forward to it. Its a great challenge.”
That said, she is both realistic and positive about the obstacle Griner may be and about how to deal with her presence.
“I expect my shot to get blocked,” Ogwumike said. “Embrace it. Go for the loose ball.”
The one thing that seems almost certain in the upcoming contest is that both Griner and Ogwumike will have big games. Even if Griner does manage to block her opponent’s shot, Nnemkadi Ogwumike has demonstrated recently that she can hit buckets from beyond the arc if she needs to and she has found a way to post big numbers whatever has been thrown at her.
“I think there are a lot of puzzles to be put together for this game,” head coach Tara VanDerveer said of the challenge ahead. “And that’s why to me it’s really exciting and it’s so fun. It’s so different and we haven’t played them before. [Griner] changes the game because of her size when we’re on offense and then how she changes the game with her size and her low block ability with us on defense.”
The key to this game, though, may be in what their other teammates can do. Both teams can count on three other players that have averaged double-figure points in the tournament so far, and both have other players selected as All-Americans this past week. Griner and Ogwumike swept the Associated Press (AP), US Basketball Writers Association (USBWA) and Wooden lists, but Baylor sophomore guard Odyssey Sims was also picked by the USBWA and both her and Stanford’s sophomore forward Chiney Ogwumike gained second team honors on the AP list.
If Sims can be kept quiet, and if Stanford’s guards, including sophomore Toni Kokenis and freshman Amber Orrange, can police and control the play, it would through a big advantage back to the Cardinal.
“The biggest thing about our Duke game, was how excited I was to see some people make some shots that we need them to make, because we’re going to need that on Sunday,” VanDerveer said.
As an underdog, and with Griner and the Bears stealing much of the limelight, Stanford finds itself in a relatively unusual position. Most fans of women’s basketball will be hoping for an exciting and close game, but few will be predicting a Cardinal victory.
“We’re so excited to be in the Final Four,” Chiney Ogwumike said. “I think a lot of times people tend to not underestimate Stanford but to look past it. We played four tough games to get to the Final Four and I think that was the most taxing part. Once you get there, it’s anybody’s ball game.”
Perhaps, too, Stanford can capitalize on the fact the will be attention shifted to its opposition.
“No pressure,” Chiney Ogwumike explained. “You get to go out there and just play a game. No ones judging you, and that’s when it’s easier to strike.”
The first of Sunday’s semifinals will be between Connecticut and Notre Dame at 3:30pm PT and the clash between Stanford and Baylor will follow at 6pm PT.