A lot of things needed to go right for Stanford to have a chance to upset Baylor in the women’s NCAA Tournament semifinals on Sunday in Denver, and a few of them did go right. But the Cardinal needed virtually everything to fall its way, especially from three-point range, and that did not happen as the No. 1-ranked Bears pulled away in the second half for a 59-47 victory.
So for the fifth straight year Stanford got to the Final Four, matching the second set by LSU and Connecticut and matched again by UConn this season. But for the fifth straight time, the Cardinal will walk away without a national title.
(See Associated Press game story here)
(See ESPN.com analysis of game here.)
(Stanford would have a better chance if it played Baylor again.)
However, this loss had to be a little easier for Stanford to take than last year’s semifinal loss to Texas A&M. The Cardinal was better than A&M, and should have won that game. It was different this time, because Baylor is unbeaten and is simply better than the Cardinal, which ended with an impressive 35-2 record and had its winning streak stopped at 32 in a row, a school record. And through the defeat ended the college career of Nneka Ogwumike, she certainly must feel good about her final performance, scoring 22 points and grabbing nine rebounds, mostly going against 6-foot-8 Brittney Griner and operating at a different spot in the offense than she has most of the season. It took her 23 shots to get her 22 points, but she scored nearly half her team’s points.
The Cardinal limited Baylor’s two All-Americans, Griner and Oddysey Sims, to a combined 24 points, about 14 points below their average. And any time Griner is limited to 13 points, nine rebounds and two blocks, as she was Sunday, you figure you’ve got a shot. The Cardinal put an enormous amount of defensive pressure on Griner, virtually ignoring the Bears’ perimeter players and just hoping the Bears could not hit enough outside shots. And since the Bears were just 2-for-8 on three-pointers and made just 36.5 percent of their shots, you’d have to say it was a sound strategy.
On the offensive end, Stanford kept all its players on the perimeter, hoping to draw Griner away from the basket and leaving the lane open. It meant Nneka Ogwumike had to operate from the top of the key instead of the low post, where she is most effective, but it was an approach coach Tara VanDerver had to take.
It was no secret that the No. 1 thing Stanford had to do to stay in the game was make a bunch of three-pointers. It didn’t happen, as the Cardinal was just 2-for-17 from beyond the arc. The outside shooting woes were disappointing, but not at all surprising. The Cardinal finished the season shooting 31.1 percent from beyond the three-point line, which is the lowest in school history, nearly two percentage points behind the previous low of 32.7 percent in 1996. It has been the Cardinal’s weakness all season, and it figured to be an issue in the postseason at some point. The fact that Stanford made it all the way to the semifinals says something about how VanDerveer was able to disguise that shooting shortcoming.
By the end of the season do-everything Nneka Ogwumike was the team’s best long-range threat, and she was 0-for-5 from three-point range on Sunday. Freshman Bonnie Samuelson made 1 of 3 three-points shots and Toni Kokenis was 1-for-3 from long range as well, and that was it as far as the Cardinal’s three-point offense.
Nonetheless, Stanford led the game 31-29 when Amber Orrange hit a 15-footer with 16:37 left in the game. But Baylor outscored the Cardinal 13-1 over the next five minutes to steal away any hope the Cardinal had of being in the game in the final three minutes.
Chiney Ogwumike fouled out with nearly eight minutes left, and that didn’t help. But the Cardinal already trailed by 10 points at that juncture, and there was not much Chiney could do in this game with Stanford virtually abandoning a low-post game. She finished with just four points and four rebounds, spending much of the game trying to guard Griner.
Orrange handled herself pretty well for a freshman point guard, and VanDerveer stayed with her almost exclusively. She played 33 minutes, but the slender 5-7 Orrange had an odd stat line, going 1-for-9 from the field for just three points and no assists. But she also had just one turnover and collected six rebounds, second most on the team.
So it will be Baylor against Notre Dame in Tuesday championship game, while Stanford starts to figure out what it will do next season with Nneka Ogwumike. Virtually all the rest of the team returns, but no program can losing a player who is a near shoo-in to be the No. 1 pick in the upcoming WNBA draft without feeling the effects. The Cardinal needs to find some shooters.
Ogwumike’s place in Stanford history — Is she best the Cardinal has ever had? — will be addressed in a future article.
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