Palo Alto Weekly

Sports - March 30, 2012

Stanford is ready for a tall task

Baylor's 6-foot-8 Griner stands in the way of Cardinal's march to possible title-game berth

by Rick Eymer

The next time Baylor's 6-foot-8 junior center Brittney Griner blocks a shot, it will be her 200th of the season and 25th of the NCAA women's basketball tournament. Her next chance, of course, comes Sunday when second-ranked Stanford (35-1) and the top-ranked Bears (38-0) meet in the national semifinals at Denver's Pepsi Center.

Just what can the Cardinal do about it? "Embrace it," sophomore Chiney Ogwumike blurted out during Wednesday's send-off press conference in Kissick Auditorium.

"I expect to have my shots blocked," senior Nnemkadi Ogwumike quickly added. "Yeah, embrace it. I like competing against the bigger players. It's a lot better than having all the smaller ones scratching at my feet."

To which Chiney added, "We have a tall task in front of us . . . No pun intended!"

Griner may own the spotlight but the Ogwumike sisters seem to be having all the fun. They were continually adding comments to each other's answers as though it was a vaudeville act and they were playing to the audience.

If these sisters are feeling any pressure, there's no outward sign of it.

Final Four? Forget about it.

"It's not every day you get to play someone like her," Nneka said. "It's a great challenge. I know Chiney is excited . . . ("I'm pumped!" Chiney nearly screamed, eyes wide open) . . . I'm more focused on having fun."

Even as Nneka gets the final word out, Chiney is already inserting her own thoughts.

"She changes the game. We're going to have to be crafty."

Griner has thrown a couple of dunks thus far and Stanford has no problem with it.

"It's two points and it adds excitement," Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said. "We're not going to have a breakdown over it, as long as it isn't the winning basket. I think she's extraordinary and she's only scratching the surface of how good she is going to be. You have to remember that they have two All-Americans on that team. It's not just Brittney. It's also Odyssey Sims."

Both of them average more than 31 minutes a game, so even as the game is being played in the Mile High city, stamina won't be much of a problem. Griner already has racked up 1,230 minutes of playing time. Sims is at 1,210. Nneka leads the Cardinal with 1,060 minutes.

"Boulder is higher," Stanford sophomore guard Toni Kokenis said.

Oh yeah! Kokenis sits quietly between the Ogwumike sisters, a bemused smile on her face as her teammates control the conversation.

Kokenis has her own thoughts about attacking the Baylor defense with Griner standing there, looking as though she's got 'Bring It On!' tattooed on the inside of her eyelid.

"She affects everyone's shot," said Kokenis, who recorded eight assists, six points and four rebounds in Stanford's 81-69 victory over Duke in the Elite Eight in Fresno on Monday. "You can't go as deep, or you have to try to pull her out. We'll have to adapt and be creative."

With Nneka a threat from the outside, there's a likely chance that could be part of the game plan. Ogwumike started shooting 3s — and making them — during the Pac-12 tournament.

"The only thing left is a halfcourt shot, I guess," she said. "I can dunk, but that's on the backburner."

"I'd love to see her dunk," Chiney said of her older sister. "I've seen her dunk so she doesn't have to prove it."

For the first time since losing at Connecticut in late November, the Cardinal enters a game as the underdog.

"Yeah, we get to go out and just play basketball," Chiney said. "No pressure."

And like it was rehearsed: "Whether we're the underdog or big dog, I'm just focused on our team," Nneka said in a rather nonchalant manner.

Both teams have advanced through the tournament with four double-digit victories. Stanford's margin of victory is at plus-17, while Baylor owns a gaudy plus-25.8.

The teams had four common opponents in Connecticut, Tennessee, Texas and UCLA. The Bears won by an average of 15.6 points in their six games while Stanford won by 14.0 in its five games.

Baylor already owns wins over both the Huskies and Notre Dame. Stanford lost by 10 in Connecticut and did not play the Irish.

Entering Sunday's semifinal, the Bears have played 22 games against teams in the NCAA tournament while the Cardinal has played 13. Baylor's opponents have won a combined 24 NCAA games, while Stanford opponents have won 16. Neither team took the easy road to the Final Four.

"When I get up I have to pinch myself this time of the year," VanDerveer said. "Every time we go, we want to win it and yet just to go is amazing. Last year I spoke in Denver and I went to see the Pepsi Center. I stood looking at the building and said, 'we're coming back.' That wasn't an easy thing to say after losing Jeanette Pohlen and Kayla Pedersen and Melanie Murphy."

Not to mention that Toni Kokenis played all of four minutes in the 2011 NCAA semifinal loss to Texas A&M, Sarah Boothe played the final minute and Joslyn Tinkle did not play at all.

Now, all have another chance to contribute and get Stanford back into the national championship game — a contest the Cardinal hasn't won since 1992.

"It's exciting to say you're going to the Final Four," Nneka said. "When we get there we still want to win two games."

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