No. 4 Stanford women’s basketball starts Pac-12 tournament play tonight against Washington State sitting in the top seed position, having just won the regular-season Pac-12 title for the 13th consecutive season.
“If someone had said at the beginning of the year that, March 5, we would be 28-2, I would be like, ‘How can that happen when you’re playing at Tennessee and South Carolina, Baylor, Connecticut?’” said Stanford head coach and Pac-12 Coach of the Year Tara VanDerveer. “And we knew how good the Pac-12 would be this year.
“I won’t say it’s all coaching for sure. We have Chiney [Ogwumike]. Chiney is huge. She’s a game changer. Who knew that she would be able to do what she’s been capable of doing this year? We are a whole different team when she is on the floor than when she is not.”
Stanford (28-2, 17-1 Pac-12) finished out another strong regular season with wins against Baylor, Tennessee and South Carolina — all on the road. Its only losses of the season came from then-No. 2 Connecticut and then-No. 7 Cal, both at Maples Pavilion.
Individually, the Card was well represented on the All-Pac-12 Team, with Ogwumike sweeping both Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year and senior forward Joslyn Tinkle and sophomore point guard Amber Orrange being named to the All-Pac-12 Team.
“We’ve always had a target on our back in the Pac-12, so after that Cal loss, it was the same thing [as after the UConn loss],” Ogwumike said. “We’re a good team — we’re trying to be a great team — but that loss put it in perspective — like, any one can beat you on any given night if they play hard. So I think that our number one thing is just playing hard, and when we play 40 minutes hard, that will help us separate.”
The Card will most likely have a chance to break the 1-1 tie with No. 5 Cal (27-2, 17-1) as the Card and the Bears are pegged to go head to head in the tournament championship on Sunday. If the Card wins it will be its seventh consecutive tournament title.
However, VanDerveer claims that it’s “jumping the gun to put [Stanford] or Cal into the final game,” since the league this year is so compressed talent wise. There is not a huge gap this year between the leaders of the pack and the bottom, with Colorado and UCLA both ranked in the top 25 along with Cal and Stanford.
A competitive Pac-12 is something VanDerveer has wanted for a long time — it brings more recognition to the league and more respectability to Stanford’s conference wins.
“We have a lot of big fish to fry this weekend,” Tinkle said. “We hope to face Cal again. Our league has some great teams this year, and it’s not going to be easy. It’s important because in order to get that number one seed going into the [NCAA] tournament, we have to play well this weekend.”
Winning the Pac-12 and having to share the title with Cal is not sufficient enough for the Card, who is determined to bring home the program’s first NCAA title since 1992.
Winning the Pac-12 Tournament would secure a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament for either Stanford or Cal. That adds extra importance to the Pac-12 Tournament, which is usually viewed as grooming and extra practice games for the real challenge that comes later this month.
In order for the Card to get the No. 1 seed for the Big Dance, it most likely has to make it through this weekend undefeated, with three games in three days — a tough feat for even this accomplished Stanford team. The Cardinal did play in a similar situation in Hawaii at the Jack in the Box Classic where it knocked off Baylor, Hawaii and Tennessee-Martin in a three-day stretch.
The Cardinal will have to win this weekend in spite of the continued absence of junior guard Toni Kokenis, who has missed the past eight games due to an undisclosed illness. Having Kokenis off the court is certainly not ideal — last year, she started in the Final Four and was relied upon defensively in the beginning of the year to shut down the opponent’s offensive threat — but it has opened up opportunities for other players.
And other players will have to step up and contribute lest it becomes the Chiney show again this weekend. Junior guard Sara James has stepped up the offensive intensity in the latter part of the season to earn Kokenis’s starting spot. Redshirt junior forward Mikaela Ruef has worked to develop every part of her game. And sophomore guards Bonnie Samuelson and Taylor Greenfield have provided huge sparks from behind the 3-point line throughout the season. It will take a combined effort from all players to get the W’s.
“I think Sara James, Mikaela Ruef, especially [have been helpful],” VanDerveer said. “Bonnie had her career high this year; Taylor Greenfield had awesome games against Baylor and Gonzaga. We just need to take everyone’s best game, and we need almost that every game… We know what they’re capable of, and we can’t have people sand-bagging. They are great players, they are working hard, and I think this team is a very cohesive team. That’s something that’s really important down the stretch.”
Ogwumike, Tinkle and Orrange were able to find a rhythm early in the season and lead the team offensively and defensively. Ogwumike leads the team in scoring and rebounding with 22.9 ppg and 12.7 rpg. Tinkle has the most blocks on the season and is the second leading scorer with 12.3 ppg. Orrange ranks second in the Pac-12 for assist-to-turnover ratio and third in assists with 4.3 per game.
“A lot happens in the [Pac-12] tournament. I think that the tournament for me is like a dress rehearsal for the NCAA,” said VanDerveer. “It really helps simulate tournament attitude… This year there are a lot of good teams. A lot of capable teams.”
The Card faces the first of these capable teams 6 p.m. tonight at Key Arena in Seattle against eighth-seeded Washington State.
Contact Ashley Westhem at awesthem “at” stanford.edu.