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W. Basketball: Stanford loses in Final Four for fifth straight season, falls short against Griner and Baylor

Five straight Aprils, five straight heartbreaks.

Last night, the No. 1 Baylor women’s basketball team defeated No. 2 Stanford 59-47 in the semifinals of the NCAA tournament in Denver.

Stanford senior forward Nnemkadi Ogwumike put up 22 points in her final career game to set a school record for scoring in a season, but Stanford's elimination from the Final Four for a fifth straight season is still a tough way for the All-American to go. (Nhat V. Meyer/San Jose Mercury News)

It was the fifth straight time the Cardinal (35-2) had made the trip to the Final Four and its fifth straight loss in the last two rounds. In the previous four seasons it was knocked out of the tournament by the eventual national champion, and many expect the undefeated Lady Bears (39-0) to repeat that success. If it wins the final, Baylor will also make history by becoming the first team to win 40 games in a season.

“Obviously, no one feels good after a loss, especially if it’s in the Final Four,” senior forward Nnemkadi Ogwumike said after losing her last collegiate game. “But I just kind of look back and reflect on what it took for us to get here, and I would have rather gone down with my team than up with any other team.”

Having not played against the Bears since 2008, a year before Associated Press National Player of the Year Brittney Griner started her collegiate career, both teams were unknown to one another. Trying to crack the puzzle of how to deal with the 6-foot-8 junior center, Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer set her team up with the radical strategy of playing five on four; leaving the Bears’ junior guard Jordan Madden (who had a shooting percentage in the tournament of just 26.3) free to take her shot and using the spare player to double-team Griner.

The tactic seemed to work. Griner had a relatively quiet game, going without scoring for a full 15 minutes spanning halftime and ending with 13 points, eight rebounds and just two blocks. In comparison, Nneka Ogwumike scored 22 points to set a new single-season record for a Cardinal player with 807 points over a single year, and also grabbed nine boards.

Beyond Griner’s abilities to block shots, rebound, shoot and even dunk, the real effect that she has on other teams is that her presence changes the way they play basketball. Stanford had shot 42.1 percent from the field and 23.8 percent from beyond the arc in the tournament up to Sunday’s semifinal; against Baylor it shot just 33.3 percent and 11.8 percent from downtown.

Both Nneka Ogwumike and her sister, sophomore forward Chiney, got into foul trouble in the second half, and when the latter fouled out with 7:39 remaining in the game, the Cardinal had trouble recovering. The Card also committed 17 fouls to Baylor’s nine, sending the Bears to the charity stripe 26 times.

In the first half Stanford refused to let the Lady Bears open up a gap and responded to an early four-point deficit to tie and then lead the game. Baylor pulled ahead to take a 25-23 lead into the break, but the Card quickly regained the lead after returning from the locker room. It could not make the advantage count, though, and the Bears moved ahead and grabbed enough of a lead that the Cardinal could not quite pull itself back into contention.

“Ultimately, I think also it was kind of difficult for us to really figure out what we wanted to do on offense,” Nneka Ogwumike said. “I think we were too worried about [Griner].”

Baylor will now face Notre Dame in Tuesday’s final. In Sunday’s first semifinal the Irish trailed Connecticut at the half after dropping an early lead and almost allowed the Huskies to sneak past for the win in the final seconds of regulation. After forcing overtime, though, Notre Dame pulled out an 83-71 victory.

Stanford, meanwhile, will look back on yet another bittersweet year. By most teams’ standards, it was a great season: winning both the Pac-12 conference and tournament, continuing a four-year undefeated reign at Maples Pavilion and reaching the Final Four of the NCAA tournament. However, it is now 20 years since VanDerveer’s program last took home a national title — all three of the other semifinal participants have won it within the last 11 years — and it now graduates several key players.

The bright side for Stanford fans is that, as always, there will be fresh talent arriving on the Farm for next year, and with VanDerveer at the helm it may well get back to the Final Four for yet another bite at the apple.