At the beginning of the season, Chiney Ogwumike told me that the team’s final goal was a national title; although the Cardinal fell short, reaching the Final Four is a huge milestone.
I was fortunate enough to be the voice of Stanford women’s basketball for KZSU almost every game en route to this year’s Final Four, and I was there when the Card failed to win that elusive national title.
That loss left a smudge on an otherwise stellar season. Ogwumike, the 2014 John R. Wooden National Player of the Year, might not have gotten that championship ring she deserved, but it was still an incredible season.
“Our depth, and having so many people contributing in so many games, it made [the season] that much more fun because everyone had that sense of urgency to keep playing and that made each possession that much more important,” Ogwumike said. “We may have hit some bumps in the road but we played so hard for each other in a way that’s different than in the past.”
The main theme of this year’s team was the need for greater contributions from more players, aside from the big numbers Ogwumike was putting up every night.
Point guard Amber Orrange stepped up at key moments in the season and continued to be a silent weapon for the Cardinal offense and defense, often coming through when she was needed most while making the players around her better with her dead-eye passing and dribble penetration.
The biggest breakout star, though, was senior Mikaela Ruef — another player who involves others around her and plays with an unselfish mindset. Despite her inclination to let others do the scoring, Ruef put aside her selfless tendencies in the Elite Eight game against UNC when she was needed most, finishing the game with three 3-pointers and a career-high 17 points.
“Playing with someone like Mikaela was fun because of how hard she worked, and how we were both going at it Batman and Robin style all year,” Ogwumike said.
A different player stepped up to compliment the dominant play of Ogwumike each game. That made it hard for competitors to focus their defenses on any particular area of the court, or target any one player besides Ogwumike.
Throughout the season, Stanford’s star forward proved that she had not become complacent with her skills and level of performance, as some questioned she might after last season. Proving to be so much more physically mature than the majority of her competitors, her work paid off in the form of numerous records, accolades and the No. 1 WNBA draft pick — never letting her older sister, Nneka Ogwumike ’12, out-do her in any regard.
Despite all of the individual and team success, the season still had its ups and downs. After an early-season loss to Connecticut, the Card went on a twenty-game win streak before faltering at Washington.
To be fair, I don’t think anyone realizes what a tough road trip that was for the Card. The team had to contend with a near-two-hour flight delay on the Thursday night before the game, then practice the next morning and a two hour drive to Pullman to play Washington State. A flight to Seattle on Saturday, their “off day,” took up the whole morning before another practice, which was then followed by a long team dinner afterwards at the house of a friend of the team that was further stretched out by a snow delay.
By the 12:30 p.m. tipoff on Sunday, the team was tired. After the loss, head coach Tara VanDerveer was adamant on the bus when she said that every player was important, and had to be accountable for each and every game.
Los Angeles was another notable road trip, as the team overcame the eighth-largest deficit — 19 points — in NCAA history to beat USC. Stanford then won the Pac-12 title outright with a narrow win over UCLA, indicating that the Pac-12 Tournament would be no walk in the park — and it wasn’t.
In the third meeting of the season between the two teams, the Trojans didn’t let the Card take away another winnable game, and it was the Cardinal who left the arena with a devastating loss that time around.
“The Washington loss, we knew we didn’t shoot the ball well, so if we shot well we probably could’ve changed the outcome of that game. But [against] USC, we tried and we played hard, and usually when we play hard, we win in conference,” said Ogwumike. “And USC found a way to out-grit us and out-hustle us in a way that was different than before.”
The only thing I heard VanDerveer say when she was on the bus was something along the lines of, “They better not send us back to this place,” referring to the possibility of having to make a third trip to Seattle for the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The loss, however, was a turnaround for the team late in the season that provided a reminder that they were not invincible.
“If we didn’t lose to USC, I’m not sure how far we would have made it in the [NCAA] Tournament, quite frankly,” Ogwumike said. “That really reorganized our offense, and we had a huge sense of urgency because we knew that we were vulnerable to lose at any point.”
Stanford bulldozed through the first two rounds of the tournament and returned to Maples for a win against the Tar Heels, what Ogwumike believes was the team’s most exciting and rewarding win of the season.
The seniors were able to leave Maples for the last time with a bang after defeating UNC and earning a trip to the Final Four. When I walked in to congratulate the team, the energy in the locker room was electric — country music blaring and fried chicken galore — and that same energy transferred over on the trip to Music City.
Once in Nashville, No. 2 Stanford knew it was the underdog going up against No. 1 Connecticut. The Cardinal decided to take a relaxed approach towards the game, focusing on having fun and not getting too tight. Stanford finished up its open practice the day before the Final Four with Sara James leading some of the players and VanDerveer in a round of line dancing. The strategy worked somewhat because the Cardinal came out confident and poised in the first half of play, but Connecticut was just too good to be beaten by anyone this year.
When Ogwumike was pulled out of the game for the last time wearing a Stanford jersey, there was almost a collective inhalation from the fans in the arena when they realized that they were saying their farewell to Chiney Ogwumike — one of the greatest athletes in Stanford women’s basketball history — and that the Cardinal had missed out on another national title.
“After the loss in the Final Four, Erica Payne was bawling and I told her it was okay,” Ogwumike said. “But she said, ‘I wish we could have done this for you.’ And I said, ‘No, I wish I could have played better for you.’ It’s one of those things when the people were just so selfless and you have this huge sisterhood. Playing for each other means so much to us, more than anything, and that’s the culture we’ve got in our Stanford basketball locker room.”
The plane ride home was not filled with disappointment, but with renewed drive and determination for the season to come. Ogwumike told me at the beginning of the year that the window of opportunity to get to the Final Four is always open at Stanford.
While Ogwumike and Ruef are already preparing for the next chapter in their careers — the WNBA — fellow seniors Sara James and Toni Kokenis are preparing for the first chapter in their non-basketball lives. James will enroll in Columbia University’s nursing program, while Kokenis will continue her studies at Stanford as a co-term in sociology while also saving time to start a non-profit. The remainder of the team is about to start spring training and look ahead to next season.
Ogwumike praised the freshman class this year for the diverse skill sets that each of them brought to the team this year, especially Lili Thompson, who broke into the starting lineup before Pac-12 play even started. And Ogwumike still keeps tabs on Erica McCall, her “protégé,” to make sure she’s doing what she needs to do to succeed.
“With the departure of each senior class, people have always had more and more doubt …and each year, people have stepped up and we’ve succeeded beyond those doubts and expectations, so I know they’ll succeed and find a way,” Ogwumike said. “People are going to have to take on bigger roles offensively. I’m not worried about them. They’re very talented and they just need to show it to the world.”
Next season might be a rebuilding period, but if the past is any indication, Stanford women’s basketball will continue to remain one of the premier programs in the nation.
Contact Ashley Westhem at awesthem ‘at’ stanford.edu.