By Nate Adams
Though it struggled to get into a smooth offensive rhythm, No. 3 Stanford women’s basketball was able to pull away from visiting Rutgers after a scrappy first half on Sunday afternoon, eventually sealing a 63-50 victory in its season opener. Junior forward Nnemkadi Ogwumike played all 40 minutes for Stanford (1-0) and led both teams with 20 points, while her younger sister Chiney, a freshman, contributed a game-high 12 rebounds in just 21 minutes.
Stanford got off to a strong start thanks to some quick rebounds and strong shooting from beyond the arc, but the team’s accuracy floundered a bit after the opening minutes. Following a free throw from Chiney Ogwumike that opened the scoring for the Cardinal, sophomore Joslyn Tinkle sank a three from a full step beyond the arc. The Missoula, Mont., native added another three just a few minutes later, while Chiney Ogwumike, who Cardinal coach Tara VanDerveer tapped as a starter in her first regular season game in a Stanford uniform, pulled down six rebounds in under five minutes, helping Stanford spurt out to a 10-4 lead.
The Scarlet Knights (0-2) bounced back to within 12-11 on a Nikki Speed jumpshot just a few minutes later, and continued to answer Stanford shot for shot. Monique Oliver gave Rutgers its first lead of the game at 17-16 midway through the half, and the visitors would continue to hang tough in the opening frame.
Both teams had some difficulty finding the hoop in the middle stretch of the half, with Stanford missing seven consecutive three-pointers in the 10 minutes following Tinkle’s last basket from long range. The Cardinal was shooting 9-for-23 overall at that point, with Rutgers shooting at a similar 9-for-22 clip.
“Jeanette [Pohlen] is a very capable three-point shooter, as is Kayla [Pedersen], but I think we didn’t do as much as we needed to do in terms of creating good shots for them,” VanDerveer said about her team’s first-half offense. “[We need to] recognize how to move the ball and give them better shots.”
Pohlen and Pedersen, both seniors this year, each finished the game shooting just 1-for-5 from beyond the arc.
The biggest edge for the Cardinal, and the difference that allowed it to maintain some control going into halftime, was in rebounding. When it headed into the locker room with a 32-29 lead, Stanford was out-boarding Rutgers 25 to 15 and had converted 11 second-chance points. A team-high 10 of those rebounds came from Chiney Ogwumike.
VanDerveer went with the same starting five in the second half, and thanks to a more aggressive approach, they were immediately able to extend the Cardinal lead and hold on for the win. Tinkle opened the scoring from the field once again, this time with a two-pointer. Nnemkadi Ogwumike followed that with a layup, and Pedersen dropped a nothing-but-net three from deep on the left side that electrified the crowd and gave Stanford a 39-29 lead less than three minutes into the half.
The Cardinal found success by continuing to force the ball in close. Tinkle drove in for a layup with just over eight minutes remaining to make it 52-40, and Pedersen stretched the score to 54-40 on a shot from the edge of the paint a moment later, giving the Cardinal a lead of 14.
“We got more aggressive in the second half, and that helped us a lot,” VanDerveer said. “We started out really concerned about putting the ball on the floor, and they hit some shots. Then we had to tighten it up…as we got more aggressive in the second half, we looked better.”
Rutgers was only able to pull as close as 10, making it 60-50 on a three-pointer from April Sykes before Nnemkadi Ogwumike closed out the scoring with a layup and a free throw from a foul on the play.
By game’s end, Nnemkadi Ogwumike, Pedersen and Pohlen-Stanford’s three returning starters-had each played a full 40 minutes, most surprising for Nnemkadi Ogwumike, who was limited to just 13 minutes in her team’s first two exhibition games by a sore left ankle. The reigning Pac-10 player of the year said she was kept off the court only as a precautionary measure, and that she’s ready to play as often as needed.
The win wasn’t pretty at times, but there’s still plenty for the Cardinal to be encouraged about. Tinkle scored 10 points en route to a solid performance as a starter, and Chiney Ogwumike made huge contributions, particularly on rebounds.
“I think she did very well in terms of being aggressive,” Nnemkadi said of her younger sister. “I think she handled herself very well…she composed herself nicely, and did whatever she could when she was on the court.”
Adding to the positive takeaways, Pedersen was confident that the 2010 squad was off to a good start in terms of coordination on the court. In a year that Stanford boasts a versatile rotation that can change positions or zones often, she was encouraged to see it working well in game one.
“I think our communication was outstanding,” she said. “Everybody knew who was guarding who, what defenses we were in, what offenses we were in, so I think everybody stepped up.”
With the victory, VanDerveer takes a small step toward Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer in the history book. The Stanford coach is fifth in all-time wins with 758, compared to Stringer’s third-place mark of 843.
Stanford will hit the road this weekend, playing its next two games at Utah on Friday and Gonzaga on Sunday.