- Graham Hays, espnW.com
- 0 Shares
LOS ANGELES -- Like a lot of big events that take place in the shadow of Hollywood, Sunday's game between No. 3 Stanford and No. 9 UCLA arrived with ample talk as to what one of the famous invitees would wear. And while they weren't the work of Versace or Vera Wang, the warm-up pants, shirt and protective boot sported by Cardinal All-American Nnemkadi Ogwumike threatened to overshadow the show that followed.
But there's a reason Stanford has more staying power than the latest movie or music icon, a reason the Cardinal have won 19 of 24 Pac-10 regular-season championships. And a reason they appear headed for championship No. 20 after beating the second-place Bruins 67-53 in Pauley Pavilion.
Perhaps the gap is closing with a program on the rise in Westwood, but Stanford is still more than any one player. And it's still better than the rest of the conference by a margin greater than the skills of any individual, even one of the nation's best players.
"Once it was clear she wasn't going to play, I was excited to see what different people would do," Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said. "I told our team that before the game, I just said, 'I'm going to learn a lot about our competitiveness. I'm going to learn a lot about who really wants to be out there.'"
Freshmen Chiney Ogwumike, Nnemkadi's younger sister, and Toni Kokenis really want to be out there.
Both established new career highs by playing 37 minutes against UCLA. Chiney led all players with 18 points and 15 rebounds, the latter a new personal best, while Kokenis finished with 13 points, 2 assists, 3 steals and invaluable backcourt minutes against UCLA's tenacious trapping pressure defense.
"We affectionately call our freshmen 'babies.' Our babies grew up today," VanDerveer said. "Toni and Chiney had just fabulous games, really just so poised making big free throws, making big plays all game long."
For much of the first half, Stanford looked like a team missing a key ingredient. The older Ogwumike leads Stanford in scoring and is second in rebounding. More than that, she has shown an ability to create points in the toughest of games, including a Final Four victory against Oklahoma last season in which she finished with 38 points and 16 rebounds, and then 20 points and 10 rebounds in an overtime loss at Tennessee this season. Without her, and against a quick, aggressive defense in Sunday's first half, the Cardinal turned over the ball nine times, got to the free throw line just four times and took (and often settled) for eight 3-point attempts.
That changed almost from the outset in the second half. After Kokenis broke the halftime tie with a jumper a little more than a minute into the second half, Chiney followed with a three-point play that gave the Cardinal the lead for good with 17:44 remaining. Time and again, Stanford got the ball to her in the post and she used her almost preternatural quickness to finish, get to the free throw line or at the very least, open up space.
"A lot of times when Chiney's out there, the ball is going to Nneka and [Chiney's] getting the [offensive rebounds]," VanDerveer said. "And in this particular game, without Nneka, Chiney was our No. 1 low-block presence. In the beginning of the game, in the first half, I don't think we did a good enough job getting her the ball, and I don't know that she really understood that's what we needed. But in the second half, I think at halftime we made it pretty clear, this is what you need to do."
Sidelined earlier in conference play by a head injury sustained in a victory against UCLA earlier this season, Kokenis was almost as important on the perimeter as Chiney was in the paint, allowing VanDerveer to stick with a three-guard lineup for almost the entire second half. Jeanette Pohlen long ago proved her ability to run a team, but Kokenis gives the Cardinal another ball handler, shooter and perimeter defender of the kind they lost when Rosalyn Gold-Onwude graduated.
"Toni's a very intelligent player," VanDerveer said. "She works really hard, she has terrific athleticism. She used her quickness defensively. She had a great weekend. She really helped us defensively in the [USC] game and in this game, keeping people in front of her, using her quickness, using her smarts, knowing where to be. And she's got someone like Kayla [Pedersen] talking to her, helping her."
The coach might have gone into the game eager to see which players were competitive enough to prove they wanted to be on the court, but she also went in knowing one player needed to be on the court. She told Pedersen she couldn't foul out, that she had to stay in the game. And stay she did, officially clocking in with 40 minutes. And while it won't go down as the senior's greatest game on a long list of candidates, it was a game emblematic of why she is one of the nation's top handful of players, regardless of what the statistics say (on this day a very respectable line of 13 points, 11 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 blocks and a steal).
At one point in the second half, Pedersen had played 23 minutes and taken just four shots, a figure matched or exceeded at the time by several teammates with fewer minutes. Few players anywhere can do as many things on the offensive end as Pedersen, who has the range to shoot 3-pointers, the handle to go off the dribble and the size and strength to post up. Yet no player of anything close to All-American ability forces the issue less than she does. Perhaps she is even too hesitant to impose herself on the offensive flow -- it felt a little like that at times in the first half. But by the end of the game, she had asserted herself in the paint alongside Chiney, to say nothing of the work she did on defense or as a calming presence.
"I don't think you saw Kayla's A-game, but you saw her A-competitiveness," VanDerveer said. "She is first and foremost an extremely intelligent player. Secondly, she's a very poised player. Things don't fluster her; she doesn't get upset, she doesn't get rattled. Even if she makes mistakes, she just keeps playing through it."
Much as the coach said of her senior cornerstone, Sunday wasn't Stanford's finest performance. If UCLA had knocked down an open jumper here or a layup there, the final minutes might have been more of an edge-of-your-seat experience. But it's not the brilliant performances alone that define a dynasty. Sometimes it's the sheer competitiveness of a team down a star, on the road against its main rival at the end of a weekend road trip.
Few in Pauley Pavilion understood that better than UCLA coach Nikki Caldwell, a part of exactly the same kind of program as an assistant at Tennessee.
"I think teaching our kids how to compete for 40 [minutes] and not just be complacent with just being in a game," Caldwell said of what separates the two programs. "It's a different mentality that we're trying to convey here, one that they're grasping slowly. But it's one that we're still, every game, trying to implement, if you will, this mental toughness. Coming from where we come from, and a program like Tennessee, you play for that championship. You don't do anything but practice and play for a championship."
With or without a player like Nnemkadi Ogwumike.
"She definitely would have helped, but she didn't play, so we just had to get the job done," Pedersen said.
That's a perfect acceptance speech for a team once again the best in the Pac-10.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.