Stanford's power of three
Appel, Pedersen and Ogwumike might be the perfect collection of big players
SAN ANTONIO -- An All-American in everything but title. A center capable of controlling a game. A player whose unique skill set is redefining a position.
You don't need to wait around for Brittney Griner to see all of the above. Just tune in early Sunday (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET) to see Stanford's Nnemkadi Ogwumike, Jayne Appel and Kayla Pedersen.
Baylor and Connecticut (ESPN, 9 p.m. ET) will play what is undeniably the marquee matchup in Sunday's semifinals at the Alamodome, thanks to the convergence of Connecticut's winning streak and three of the sport's biggest stars in Baylor's Griner and Connecticut's Tina Charles and Maya Moore. That leaves Stanford to face Oklahoma in the literal and, to some, figurative opening act. And while a team ranked second each week this season and often mentioned as owning the most realistic chance of stopping the Huskies might not have the strongest hand in the annual game of disrespect, the relative anonymity of a Cardinal frontcourt both individually and collectively brilliant remains puzzling.
Because save for the slight bulge of Appel's lingering sprained right ankle, this might just be the perfect collection of big players.
"We have a lot of chemistry on and off the court," Ogwumike said of the three players 6-foot-2 or taller. "On the court, I think we're just so fluid together, and it's very helpful -- we always love playing with each other. We know each other's abilities and capabilities and we feed off of that to really push our team to the top."
In December's meeting between Stanford and Connecticut, Ogwumike destroyed a Huskies' scouting report in scoring 20 points on a barrage of mid-range jumpers while missing just two shots. Afterward, Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma joked that he wished he could "pull a Steinbrenner" and sign Ogwumike as a free agent, in reference to the New York Yankees' penchant for plucking talent away from other organizations.
Yet Stanford's leading scorer, and the player of the year in the Pac-10 for a team ranked No. 2 in the nation throughout the season, didn't earn recognition as a first-team Associated Press All-American.
Ogwumike's biggest statistical line of the season came with 30 points and 23 rebounds against Oregon's high-speed style, but her most impressive performance might have come in the nine-day stretch in December that saw the Cardinal play Duke, Tennessee and Connecticut in succession. Against teams that ended the season 17th, 13th and first in field goal defense, respectively, the sophomore averaged 17 points per game and missed a grand total of eight field goal attempts in 98 minutes.
[Kayla Pedersen] is strong, she's big, and I would say of all our posts, she's probably, if not the toughest, she's one of them. She will get that rebound. I've seen her against some of the best posts in the nation. And I think that's amazing that she can still go back to the post and dominate if we need that. Anything we need, Kayla will do.” -- Stanford teammate Rosalyn Gold-Onwude
Ogwumike was good last season as a freshman, living up to her plaudits as the Gatorade Player of the Year as a senior in high school, but she has been a star on another order as a sophomore.
As associate coach Amy Tucker put it, "From the get-go, we were just like, 'Wow, she's not even the same player.'
"I think as a freshman, she obviously had the same skill set, but she's a player that analyzes the game," Tucker continued. "So everything was new for her. She had to analyze every single thing that was new and ask a lot of questions, whereas she comes in as a sophomore and she can just play. To me, that was the biggest difference. But she did improve her skill set as well. She really worked on her perimeter game so she wasn't just a block player, which, obviously, I think has tremendously helped her."
At least Ogwumike earned some recognition as one of 10 State Farm All-Americans and a finalist for several major awards. It's curious that a 6-foot-4 player who is doing things on the wing rarely seen before in the women's game can make a strong case as the most overlooked player in America. But that appears to be Pedersen's fate wedged in between Appel and Ogwumike, if she's freed from their substantial shadows in Stanford's triangle offense by last season's shift to the wing.
"She's the glue of our team, the foundation for us," said senior Rosalyn Gold-Onwude, who sought out Pedersen after the awards announcements came out and told her she was an All-American in her eyes. "She's the smartest player on our team; she's telling us all what to do, and she's making everyone better on offense and defense. She's also one of our toughest players; she comes in and boards at the guard spot. She's a really great person and a really great leader for our team, even without speaking much."
Consider just this one example to back up those intangibles with proof of the entirely tangible.
Pedersen ranks among the top 50 players nationally at 9.3 rebounds per game. Of those 50 players, seven are listed as 6-4 or taller. The six who aren't Pedersen combined to hit eight 3-pointers this season while piling up 577 turnovers and 285 assists. (Not one of the six had more assists than turnovers individually.)
Entering Sunday's game, Pedersen has 52 3-pointers, 94 assists and just 72 turnovers.
Even Xavier's Amber Harris, who justifiably earns plenty of praise for her seemingly unique skill set at 6-5, hit just 14 3-pointers, had more turnovers than assists and didn't crack the top 50 in rebounding nationally this season.
A post player her freshman year who shifted to the wing last season to help make room for all three of Stanford's bigs on the court at the same time, Pedersen is doing things on the perimeter rarely seen before out of someone her size. Tucker brought up Harris as the best comparison, and senior Melanie Murphy mentioned Elena Delle Donne, but the former doesn't shoot from outside as often or as consistently as Pedersen, and the latter doesn't rebound like her or against the same level of competition. Because Pedersen is doing all that damage from outside while still playing in the paint like a linebacker who woke up on the wrong side of the bed.
"Kayla will take you out," Gold-Onwude said. "She's strong, she's big, and I would say of all our posts, she's probably, if not the toughest, she's one of them. She will get that rebound. I mean, I've seen her against some of the best posts in the nation. And I think that's amazing that she can still go back to the post and dominate if we need that. Anything we need, Kayla will do."
Yet as impressive as the math is when it comes to the individual components of Stanford's frontcourt, it's how it comes together within the geometry of the triangle that makes the Cardinal special -- and what almost stalled them in a regional final when the final piece of the puzzle landed in foul trouble against a Xavier team with its own big bodies. It's Pedersen proving a matchup nightmare on the perimeter and Ogwumike expanding her game to all reaches of the space inside the 3-point arc. But it's also Appel, 100 percent or otherwise, holding it together as the hub.
"The triangle looks really good when you have a great passing center in Jayne," Tucker said. "Jayne really makes that work. Sometimes when she comes out of the game, sometimes our triangle offense struggles a little bit in terms of continuity and doesn't look as clean. She makes it work. So it's really suited to her skills, but then you get to surround her with a Nneka and a Kayla, which obviously makes it look good."
Maybe they aren't the headlining act Sunday night. Maybe they don't receive quite the individual recognition they deserve. But together, Stanford's big three are entirely deserving of San Antonio's spotlight.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
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