Ogwumike puzzles OU to reach finals
Sophomore sets national semifinal scoring record with 38 points
SAN ANTONIO -- Oklahoma ran headlong into a riddle as difficult as anything the academic might of Stanford could ever dream up.
"We did not have an answer for Nneka all night long," Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale said of the Cardinal sophomore, known to most in the sport by her abbreviated nickname.
Stanford coaches and players can commiserate. The Sooners failed for 40 minutes to find a way to stop the sophomore, who picked a nice time to set a career high with 38 points, not to mention 16 rebounds, in a 73-66 win. It was the second-best scoring performance ever in a Final Four behind Sheryl Swoopes' 47 points in 1993, and it put Stanford in the national championship game for the second time in three seasons and a third consecutive meeting with Connecticut in the final weekend.
The Cardinal have been trying for two seasons to find answers for the questions Ogwumike poses. And there are many. You know the person in the company meeting who keeps raising his or her hand when everyone else is thinking early exit?
Yep, that's her.
"She likes to ask a lot of questions," Jeanette Pohlen said. "She still does this year, but she just wants to make sure she's doing the right thing most of the time. I mean, I don't have a problem with it. Sometimes the coaches do have to be like, 'All right, well, no questions now. Let's just do it, and then after -- if you want to ask a question later, that's fine.'"
The lasting image from Sunday's performance might be Ogwumike's swooping in from three or four steps away to grab a rebound. It might be her spinning into the paint and powering up for a layup and a foul. Or it could be her catching a pass in the post, and in one graceful motion, spinning and shooting a jumper before the defense can react.
She is a marvel of athleticism at 6-foot-2, the smallest of Stanford's imposing front line but the one most likely to cause nightmares for opponents still seeing her soaring above them when they turn out the light.
But for all those highlights, she is also the quintessential thinking fan's player. After all, the aspiring doctor went to Stanford for a reason.
"Nneka asks so many questions," senior Rosalyn Gold-Onwude said in continuing the universal confirmation of Ogwumike's penchant for posing queries. "She's such a thoughtful, intelligent person. Like she really thinks the game, tries to understand it. I just want to make sure people don't just think she's good because she's so athletic or just naturally talented. Nneka works very hard and thinks very hard."
Pohlen confirmed it would be fair to say Ogwumike asked more questions in practice last season than the rest of the team combined, but it's tough to blame her. The national Player of the Year as a senior in high school in Texas, she had her pick of colleges -- Coale made a home visit, in fact, and Connecticut was solidly in the running. But she picked Stanford, and arriving on the heels of Candice Wiggins' graduation, she arrived with hefty expectations on her shoulders.
Her freshman season was anything but a disappointment, but it didn't come as easily as expected for the part-time starter. A season later, she's graduated to a new level of understanding on the court.
"They make fun of me for asking questions," Ogwumike admitted with a chuckle at her own expense. "I don't ask as many this year.
"But I feel so much more comfortable. I feel [like] more of a knowledgeable player. Now it's just kind of just learning new things, learning how to do things differently. It's really fun. It's a fun process, learning, that is."
The Sooners might beg to differ about the fun part after their first meeting with Ogwumike, but her point remains. Three seasons ago, Stanford made it back to its first Final Four in more than a decade behind a brilliant senior in Wiggins. An All-American, Wiggins went for 40 points twice during the NCAA tournament that season, but she ended up splitting high-scoring honors during the six-game run with teammate Jayne Appel. Only a sophomore, Appel used the postseason run at the end of that season -- her first as a starter -- to show the nation what was to come, both for her and a program set to remain near the top with plenty of talent in the wings.
Now Appel is the senior, able to fight her way to 13 points and 10 rebounds while clearly hobbled by a sprained ankle that won't heal without rest she can't afford. And now it's Ogwumike capping off a sophomore season that points only to still greater feats to come with one more game and a shot at a national title Tuesday night.
"You know the system, you know how [coach Tara VanDerveer] works, you know how teammates play, the people you're playing with," Appel said of the change from freshman year to sophomore year. "I think it was kind of like similar to Nneka. It's more of mental learning my sophomore year, just learning to let it all go and just play."
For a long stretch of Sunday's game, deep into the final 10 minutes, it looked like the court at the Alamodome might serve as little more than a place for Ogwumike to take a curtain call. But as the Sooners rallied to within a basket of tying things up, Ogwumike simply took her performance up a level. In the final 51 seconds, she hit five free throws and hauled in a long pass for a backbreaking layup. Whatever Stanford needed, she provided, no questions asked.
"I really can't even imagine -- what is Nneka going to do? Work on her dribble next season, become a point guard?" Gold-Onwude said. "Her shot is so good now. She can turn around and shoot in the air, as opposed to just only going to the basket. She can go right or left. And I think you have to take notice of her, and I think it will say a lot for what kind of awards she might get next year."
But thanks to a night to remember against Oklahoma, next year will have to wait one more game, a game that will determine whether or not she returns next fall with a title to defend.
"She showed why she's an All-American," VanDerveer said. "And I thought she had a great game."
Ogwumike was named a State Farm All-American Saturday but was not an AP first-team All-American. So here's a question for you after watching Sunday's performance.
Are there really five players you'd trade Ogwumike for?
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
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