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Janie McCauley | The Associated Press | November 4, 2013

Ogwumike looks to lead Cardinal back to Final Four

STANFORD, Calif. -- Chiney Ogwumike speaks of how happy she is to see the parity and improvement throughout the Pac-12. She appreciates the push at every stop.

Yet make no mistake, Ogwumike plans to do everything she can to send herself out a Pac-12 champion once more.

Last fall as the season approached, coach Tara VanDerveer remained unsure how Ogwumike would play for the first time without her WNBA-star big sister, Nnemkadi.

All of those questions were answered in a hurry. Ogwumike assumed a leadership role, went on to win Pac-12 Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year honors, and averaged 22.4 points and 12.9 rebounds while carrying the Cardinal to the Spokane Regional semifinals.

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"You look at Chiney's junior numbers compared to her sophomore numbers and there's a huge difference in what she did," VanDerveer said. "She stepped up really big."

Except that Stanford missed its shot to reach a sixth consecutive Final Four - and that still stings. Now, Ogwumike wants to get Stanford back to the big stage before she's done.

The Cardinal will receive a telling test right away: They play at defending champion and top-ranked Connecticut next Monday night, after opening the season on Saturday at Boston College.

The Huskies handed Stanford an embarrassing 61-35 loss on the Cardinal's home court last December, which snapped the team's nation-best 82-game winning streak in Maples Pavilion.

Stanford then lost another in front of the spirited Maples crowd to rival California to end an 81-game unbeaten run against conference opponents. Earlier last season, the Cardinal stunned then-No. 1 Baylor and Brittney Griner on Nov. 16 in Honolulu, but even VanDerveer looks back on that win as giving her team a false sense of security.

Now, the Cardinal plan to build on their remarkable track record. They have reached 25 consecutive NCAA tournaments, had six consecutive 30-win seasons and are the 11-time reigning conference champions - having won both the regular-season and conference tournament titles in each of the past seven years.

While Stanford lost a two-point game to Georgia in the Spokane Regional semifinal, Cal went on to the Final Four before losing to runner-up Louisville 64-57 in the NCAA tournament semifinals.

"We really enjoy having the competition, especially with Cal, but there are so many teams with depth this year," Ogwumike said. "The Pac-12 is the conference to beat."

And Hall of Fame coach VanDerveer is headed for another special milestone. She begins her 28th season on The Farm, fresh off an indefinite contract extension signed during the summer and a trip to Italy, just six wins shy of joining the elite 900 wins club.

Not that she's counting, and not that many people are likely to see it. Stanford plays in Mexico the week of Thanksgiving, the time VanDerveer will probably accomplish the feat.

"I don't really think about it to be honest with you," she said.

One thing on VanDerveer's mind is how much more balanced her team might be this season, taking some pressure off Ogwumike to do it all and actually give her a chance to take a breather from time to time. Junior guard Amber Orrange averaged 10.8 points last season and is Stanford's second-leading scorer returning.

"There's a lot of help," VanDerveer said. "We're still going to be about Amber and Chiney. We need more balance. It's not just more depth. We can't have what I call coattail players, riding Chiney and Amber's coattails."

But VanDerveer is thrilled with big strides made by 6-foot-3 senior forward Mikaela Ruef. So much so that VanDerveer expects her to bump from a 3.9 scoring average to about 10.

Stanford has more team speed and VanDerveer expects the Cardinal to play more up-tempo, another positive considering the program prematurely lost senior guard Toni Kokenis, a member of two Final Four teams and the team's top defender.

Stanford announced in July that Kokenis would be forced to end her playing career following a pair of concussions during the past year.

Kokenis missed the final 14 games of the 2012-13 season, with Stanford saying only that she was sidelined with an undisclosed medical condition. She didn't play again after sustaining a second concussion on Feb. 3 at Oregon State. Stanford said her first concussion came during spring workouts in 2012, limiting her in preseason practice last fall.

"From my perspective, it's night and day from last year. We'll see what we're able to do," VanDerveer said. "No one looks bad, everyone looks good. It's so much more competitive, and this is just in practice. When the games come, I feel like I can look down the bench, and first of all Chiney can get a rest. She doesn't have to play 38 minutes a game. Amber can get a rest. Amber will be better because she doesn't have to play the whole game. It's us improving each other. That's what we have to do."

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