March 31, 2012
By Mark Soltau
All eyes will be focused on Nnemkadi Ogwumike and Brittney Griner at tip-off time Sunday night, when second-ranked Stanford (35-1) meets top-ranked Baylor (38-0) in the NCAA Final Four National Semifinals in Denver. And, rightfully so.
Both come from the Houston area, are unanimous first-team All-Americans, and are frontrunners for National Player of the Year. Ogwumike, a 6-foot-2 senior forward, averages a Pac-12-best 22.5 points and 10.3 rebounds a game, while blocking 39 shots and dishing out 62 assists.
Griner, a 6-8 junior center, leads the Big 12 with 23.4 points per game and added 9.4 rebounds. She has blocked 199 shots and averages a nation-best 5.2 per game, while adding 64 assists.
Both are relentless competitors and game-changers. Ogwumike shoots 55 percent from the field and Griner enters at a 61 percent clip.
Both have been at their best in the NCAA tournament. Ogwumike was named the Fresno Regional Most Outstanding Player after averaging 34 points and 9.5 rebounds, and shot 67.6 percent in wins against South Carolina and Duke.
Griner has dunked twice in the NCAA Tournament, highlighted by a two-hand stuff last weekend against Georgia Tech, and has dunked seven times during her college career. She's an intimidating presence who has long arms and can block shots from anywhere on the court.
Tara VanDerveer, The Setsuko Ishiyama Director of Women's Basketball at Stanford, isn't overly concerned about Griner's dunking ability.
"It'd be two points," she said. "Can she dunk from 3? We're not going to have a breakdown about it - as long as it's not the winning basket."
Ogwumike and Griner have faced each other only once in their careers, back in high school in an AAU tournament.
"A lot of people ask me about this, but I really don't remember much about that game," said Ogwumike. "She had just come out. It was really kind of a round robin-type tournament."
Ogwumike's younger sister and teammate Chiney, a 6-3 sophomore, may spend more time guarding Griner. Both know they have their work cut out but are up for the challenge.
"She's obviously a great player," Nneka said. "Her size is a huge strength and advantage for her. I think honestly her biggest strength is her team. It's not a one-trick pony. Baylor has a lot of outside threats that you just can't overlook."
Point guard Odyssey Sims is the offensive catalyst. In addition to averaging 14.8 points, she has also handed out 167 assists. Teammates Destiny Williams (10.2 points) and Nae-Nae Hayden (9.2 points) are also reliable scorers, while Jordan Madden is a defensive stopper.
"A lot of people are looking forward to just great post play," said Nneka. "But I think the excitement is going to be between the two teams rather than the individuals."
It will take a group effort by the Cardinal to neutralize Griner.
"We're all up for it," Nneka said. "Especially to do it together."
Stanford will be making a record fifth-straight appearance in the Final Four. Having come so close the previous three years, Nneka knows this is her last chance to claim a third national title for the program.
"It would mean a lot," she said. "Not just with my sister but with my team. I think it's more than just who is on this team right now but for all of the teams I've been a part of that haven't been able to win it. It would be real special because we've worked really hard and we really believe in ourselves."
VanDerveer will continue her Final Four tradition of hosting an ice cream social for current and former players on Saturday night.
"A lot of laughing, reminiscing, inspiration and anecdotes," said Nneka. "They just explain to us how special it is to be a part of Stanford."
Nneka will approach Sunday's game just like any other: "Just play hard and have fun. Leave everything on the court."
That said, she knows this game is different. Not because of the much anticipated showdown against Griner; Nneka doesn't want the season to end.
"Every year is a different year," she said. "I think this year our team is really motivated, we're very close, and we play for each other. No matter how things end up, it's all about the journey."