VanDerveer, Stanford eye top seed Baylor after overwhelming Duke
FRESNO, Calif. -- In the square dance that is elite women's basketball, two partners have never do-si-doed. But that missing pairing will be rectified next Sunday in Denver when Stanford will finally face Brittney Griner's Baylor team in the NCAA semifinal.
"I'm excited," said Stanford's Nneka Ogwumike after her team dispatched Duke with a 81-69 win. "I feel like everyone but us have played her. I'm really looking forward to the matchup."
The last time Stanford played Baylor, Nneka Ogwumike was a freshman and Griner was a high school senior. In the three seasons since, all the other top teams -- UConn, Tennessee, Notre Dame -- have had a chance to test themselves against Griner. But never Stanford and coach Tara VanDerveer.
Ogwumike has faced Griner once, though. Back in high school in Texas.
"That's when I learned to shoot the three, " she said with a laugh.
VanDerveer thought the Cardinal might face Baylor in last year's Final Four and -- in the days leading up to the Elite Eight -- jokingly referred to Stanford's 6-foot-8 male practice player, a band member named Andrew Klein who plays the alto sax, as "Brittney." But Baylor lost to Texas A&M in the regional final and didn't make it to the Final Four in Indianapolis, so the Cardinal never faced the real deal.
Now Andrew will have to get used to being called "Brittney" again.
"We're thrilled to be going to Denver," VanDerveer said. "I haven't watched Baylor because I concentrate on the team in front of us. And they're the team in front of us now. We have confidence. We know we have to play well."
And how will she cope with Griner?
"I'll think of something," said the Hall of Fame coach.
Though VanDerveer fully expected to be placed in undefeated Baylor's side of the bracket, she wasn't too pleased about it. Stanford has only lost once -- to UConn back on November 28 and has won 31 straight. But Stanford wins are discounted because of the weakness of its conference and the relative invisibility of West Coast basketball. The other two top seeds have lost more games -- UConn is 32-4 and Notre Dame is 33-3.
Stanford was handed a tricky road to the Final Four, flying across the country to play the first two rounds at Old Dominion. Now the Cardinal face the biggest obstacle the women's game has ever presented. But VanDerveer didn't know if she had a Final Four team at the beginning of the season, having graduated key players and relying heavily on young players like point guard Amber Orrange.
But she doesn't mind her team's position.
"We don't get a chance too often to be an underdog or be totally overlooked," VanDerveer said.
Stanford poses its own matchup challenges, as Duke found out. The post combination of the Ogwumike sisters is lethal inside. On Monday night Nneka scored 29 points, tying the school's single-season scoring record of 787 points set by Candice Wiggins in 2008. Younger sister Chiney added 12 points and had 17 rebounds.
"They're the real deal," said Duke point guard Chelsea Gray.
On Monday Stanford's perimeter game was also working. The Cardinal hit 7 of 18 3-pointers, with three coming from 6-foot-3 post Joslyn Tinkle. Stanford led Duke throughout the game, withstanding a run that cut its lead to eight midway through the second half.
Nneka Ogwumike, in particular, is a difficult proposition for any team. If Griner wasn't in the picture, Nneka would likely be the runaway candidate for player of the year.
"She's pretty much a tremendous difference maker," Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie said.
A difference maker indeed. But Griner is a game-changer -- something that the women's game has never seen before and is not easily simulated by a tall male saxophone player.
It's a matchup that's been three years coming.