Cardinal fans at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn., said farewell to Chiney Ogwumike — one of the greatest athletes in Stanford women’s basketball history — when the Cardinal women’s basketball squad (33-4) fell to No. 1 Connecticut (39-0) in the Final Four of the NCAA Tournament on Sunday, 75-56.
In the final game of her collegiate career, Ogwumike battled under the basket against the imposing size of the Huskies’ frontcourt. Despite being held to just four points in the first half, the three-time WBCA All-American and National Player of the Year candidate finished with 15 points (a season low), 10 rebounds and four assists, notching her 27th double-double of the season.
Despite two other Cardinal scoring in double digits, with freshman Lili Thompson — Stanford’s “future great player” according to head coach Tara VanDerveer — tallying 12 points and junior Amber Orrange leading the team with 16 points, five assists, and two steals, the Huskies were too much to handle. Armed with the best defense in the country and three WBCA All-Americans, head coach Geno Auriemma and his team were the favorites heading into the matchup and didn’t lessen their intensity except for a fleeting part of the first half. Stanford’s 56 points in the game were the fewest it has scored in a game all season.
“Our team is, I think, really disappointed, with how we played, especially in the second half. And I think we really struggled,” VanDerveer said. “We turned the ball over too much in the second half. And we did not do a good enough job defensively.”
If the game were only 15 minutes long, the Cardinal would have come out on top. Because for those 15 minutes the Cardinal played brilliantly and confidently, even with the Huskies shutting down Ogwumike down low. Stanford took advantage of poor shooting by Connecticut and capitalized on strong rebounding and transition buckets. A 3-pointer by Thompson at the 12:34 mark of the first half gave Stanford its largest lead of the half at 16-10.
The tables soon turned, however, as the Huskies ended the half on a 12-2 scoring run that put them up 28-24 at the half. The second half turned into a burst of output from Connecticut, which hit four of its first five shots — a stretch which was coupled with a dip in efficiency for the Cardinal as they went 1-of-9 to start the half. Thirteen turnovers, getting beat on the offensive boards, an off shooting night and the inability to penetrate into the key kept Stanford from the near-perfect game that was necessary for it to take down the undefeated Huskies.
“I think we did a great job in the first half managing the game and taking timely shots, and people were aggressive in finishing,” Ogwumike said. “Things got a little away from us in the second half. Maybe if two things went our way we could have swayed the momentum. But that’s just the way the game goes sometimes.”
In the opening minute of the second half, Ogwumike knocked down the only Cardinal basket in the first six minutes of play. After a half of being swarmed under the basket, with different defenders switching on and off of her, Ogwumike decided to try her luck at shooting and knocked down a 3-point shot. The Cardinal, however, went cold from the field for the next five minutes of play, while Connecticut took its first double-digit lead of the game and never looked back.
All Husky starters scored in double digits, led by one of the few players who could take away the Wade Trophy Award from Ogwumike: sophomore Breanna Stewart. Stewart finished the game with 18 points, seven rebounds and two blocked shots, all while playing stifling defense underneath the basket.
With Connecticut shooting an impressive 60 percent from the field in the second half, it would be near impossible for any team to beat it. But the Cardinal, despite shooting just 38 percent for the game, never relinquished their energy and remained within 11 points after a layup from Ogwumike with 4:13 to play. Stanford, however, couldn’t turn defensive stops into points on the other end and the Husky lead widened. The Cardinal battled under the basket and challenged the Huskies with the aggression and tenacity that it lacked the first time the teams met in November. The Card might not have been able to execute effectively for 40 minutes, but it played with heart for the full 40 minutes.
Ogwumike ends her collegiate career with back-to-back Pac-12 Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year Awards, three trips to the Final Four, four Pac-12 conference wins and three Pac-12 Tournament crowns. Her legacy arguably surpasses that of her sister Nneka Ogwumike ‘12, as the younger sister reigns as the No. 1 all-time scoring and rebounding leader in program history. It was also the last game for seniors Sara James, Mikaela Ruef and Toni Kokenis.
“I think [my career at Stanford] has been an amazing run,” Ogwumike said. “I’m not even that emotional about it because I was just trying to have fun today, just have fun, enjoy the moment, play hard. And that’s easy to do when you have a great coach and you have great teammates that support you every possession. No matter the outcome. So my experience at Stanford has been a blessing.”
The Cardinal topped off a successful season with a trip to the Final Four — its sixth appearance in the past seven years. That accomplishment alone — being one of the four best teams in the nation — should not be overlooked, especially considering it fell to arguably one of the best starting lineups in the history of women’s basketball.