STANFORD, Calif. – Stanford sisters Nnemkadi and Chiney Ogwumike are thrilled to take on one mighty, Mile High challenge: stopping Baylor’s 6-foot-8 Brittney Griner and the unbeaten Lady Bears.
It’s a matchup they’ve both been eagerly waiting for as they lead the Cardinal (35-1) into their fifth consecutive Final Four this weekend in Denver, riding a school-record 32-game winning streak. Nneka Ogwumike faced Griner in an AAU game back in high school, and that’s when she said she learned to shoot 3-pointers, because scoring in the paint was a big problem.
Chiney Ogwumike knows Griner will alter shots and block her fair share, too.
“I think we have a tall task ahead of us, no pun intended,” Chiney Ogwumike said with a grin before practice Wednesday. “I expect my shot to get blocked quite frankly. Embrace it.”
Stanford is an underdog for a change, and that’s fine with 26th-year head coach Tara VanDerveer. She hasn’t received any text messages, emails or calls with tips on how to pull off the upset against the Bears (38-0).
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“Everyone just says, ‘Good luck, our money’s on Baylor,”‘ she said, only half-joking.
VanDerveer has a couple of tall male practice players who have played as Griner in the past — like last March when Stanford figured it might face Baylor at the Final Four. That was before Texas A&M pulled off a surprising victory against the Bears in the regional final and then beat the Cardinal in the national semifinals on the way to an improbable championship.
VanDerveer won’t even mind if Griner dunks against her team. It’s good for the women’s game, after all.
“That adds excitement,” Vanderveer said. “It’s two points. We’re not going to have a breakdown about it. As long as it’s not the winning basket. If Brittney Griner dunks, I hope she slams a couple home in warm-ups. I’ll be sitting right there cheering. She’s a special player.”
Nneka Ogwumike is a load to handle herself. Ogwumike, the likely No. 1 pick in next month’s WNBA draft, had 39 points and 10 rebounds in Stanford’s 76-60 victory against South Carolina in the regional semifinals. She then poured in 29 points and nine boards in an 81-69 win against Duke in the Fresno Regional final.
“Honestly, if Nneka was 6-8 I’d be terrified of her,” Chiney Ogwumike said, who grabbed 17 rebounds in the Duke win. “Her game would be ridiculous. March madness turns you into a monster. She’s playing out of her mind.”
While these Final Four trips are becoming familiar each March, students and others in the community are stopping the Stanford players and coaches a little more frequently lately considering they all know that Griner and Co. are up next.
In fact, VanDerveer was at the grocery store and got startled when she grabbed a carton of milk from the refrigerator only to have a man on the other side loading it congratulate her.
“Nneka and I went to get Jamba Juice yesterday and got stopped,” Chiney Ogwumike said. “Someone said, `Are you those twins?’ We’re like, `Yeah, we’re the twins.”‘
In truth, Chiney is a sophomore while Nneka is a senior. Yet both know it’s going to take one impressive tag-team act to move into the title game and have a chance at the program’s first championship since 1992.
“I’d rather do that than go against tiny little people,” Nneka Ogwumike said of going up against Griner’s big body in the middle.
She doesn’t remember a lot from that game against Griner, except that they played at Rice and “it was hard for me to score, obviously.”
Griner’s game was still developing and Ogwumike recalls she was figuring out her fundamentals. How tall was Griner then?
“Taller than me,” Nneka Ogwumike quipped.
VanDerveer is counting on another balanced performance come Sunday night at the Pepsi Center after she got contributions from much of the roster in the win against Duke. While Nneka Ogwumike will run the show, the rest of the team is looking to take some pressure off its All-American forward — especially considering things will be all the more difficult dealing with Griner inside on both ends of the floor.
Even 6-3 forward Joslyn Tinkle might find herself helping on Griner. Tinkle is eager to prove herself any way she’s needed. A year ago, she didn’t get off the bench in the NCAA semifinals after playing in every game up to that point.
That fueled her for months, and she became a regular starter in January. Tinkle hit three 3-pointers and finished with 13 points, four rebounds and three assists against the Blue Devils on Monday.
“I just love to be out there, regardless of where I am,” Tinkle said. “I’m doing my best to do whatever it is needed for our team.”
And it’s certainly going to take a little something from everyone to get by Griner.
“We know that we’re capable of more. Right now, I’m going in and just enjoying every moment,” Nneka Ogwumike said. “It’s not every day you play against someone like her. I’m excited. I feel like I’m the only one in the country who hasn’t played her.”