Commentary

Stanford earns fourth straight Final Four

Nneka Ogwumike nets 23 points, 11 rebounds; sister Chiney has 18 points, 15 boards

Originally Published: March 28, 2011
By Mechelle Voepel | ESPN.com

SPOKANE, Wash. -- Stanford's Nneka Ogwumike suggested -- with sincerity -- that the No. 1 seed Cardinal might be the underdog against 11th-seeded Gonzaga in the regional final here Monday. No, seriously.

After all, the Bulldogs would have most of the sold-out crowd at Spokane Arena rooting for them. They had one of the hottest players in the NCAA tournament in Courtney Vandersloot. Gonzaga had lost by just six points when these two teams met in Spokane in November. And a No. 11 seed beat a No. 1 Sunday in the men's tournament, so maybe …

Not a chance. Stanford was too big, too skilled, too confident … too good. The Cardinal beat Gonzaga 83-60, advancing to their fourth consecutive Women's Final Four. Seniors Jeanette Pohlen and Kayla Pedersen will go for their first NCAA title on their fourth try.

"Going to the Final Four every year -- I mean, it's a dream for people," Pohlen said. "Some people don't even get close."

Gonzaga seemed close -- one game away -- but Stanford made that appear to be quite a wide gulf with how well the Cardinal played in every respect Monday.

The Bulldogs fans among the 11,646 in attendance did what they could to pump up Gonzaga, the West Coast Conference champion that had already beaten teams from the Big Ten, Pac-10 and Big East in this tournament. But against the Pac-10's giant, the Bulldogs simply didn't have enough rocks.

Not to mention the ones they did have pretty much just bounced off the Ogwumike sisters. As was the case in the Cardinal's nerve-racking victory over North Carolina on Saturday, Stanford's sibling sledgehammer pounded away on Gonzaga.

[+] EnlargeNneka Ogwumike
AP Photo/Elaine ThompsonNnemkadi Ogwumike helped lead top-seeded Stanford to its fourth consecutive Final Four.

Nneka Ogwumike, a junior, finished with 23 points (9-of-11 shooting) and 11 rebounds, and freshman Chiney had 18 and 15. Nneka was the Spokane Regional's most outstanding player, while Chiney and Pedersen (eight points, 12 rebounds) were both on the all-regional team.

"The quickness with which they attack on the boards is just phenomenal," Gonzaga coach Kelly Graves said. "Honestly, we're not there yet to be able to match up with these kinds of teams that have that strength and athleticism inside.

"We can beat them, but it takes a perfect game. And we obviously didn't do it tonight."

If Stanford wasn't perfect Monday, the Cardinal were't all that far off. Stanford fell in the NCAA championship game in 2008 and 2010, and the national semis in 2009. If the Cardinal play as they did against Gonzaga -- which included a rarely used but very effective zone defense -- they're going to be tough to stop in Indianapolis. They shot 57.4 percent from the field (31-of-54) and outrebounded Gonzaga 49-25.

Pohlen, after struggling with her shot against the Tar Heels, was on target Monday. She had 17 points, making 5 of 8 3-point attempts, and five assists. Stanford's other starter, guard Lindy La Rocque, had 11 points.

Defensively, I think our zone was huge. And we are not a small team, so the zone really can disrupt a lot of teams. We did a good job rotating and rebounding. Every time I looked up, either Nneka [Ogwumike], Chiney [Ogwumike] or Kayla [Pedersen] was grabbing the rebound.

-- Stanford's Jeanette Pohlen

"I still had confidence in myself," said Pohlen after going 1-of-9 against North Carolina. "And, sure, you can say that once you made 5 of 8, but I'm really being honest about that. And my team definitely stayed with me. We have to be able to knock down that shot, or else they will just pack it in on Nneka and Chiney and any of our posts."

Unlike Saturday's semifinal, which came down to the last minute, Stanford from beginning to end of this game looked every bit the No. 1 seed defending its "Best of the West" turf.

During a timeout with 7:05 left in the game and the Bulldogs down by 23, a clip was shown on the video board of last season's NCAA title game, which Stanford lost to UConn. (Come on … who makes these choices?)

The quieted crowd cheered a bit at that year-ago result of another group of dogs beating the Cardinal. But the Bulldogs just couldn't match up to what UConn's Huskies were able to do last year in San Antonio.

Vandersloot, who had a very good first half with 21 points (Gonzaga trailed by nine at the break), got only four points in the second half.

"Defensively, I think our zone was huge," Pohlen said. "And we are not a small team, so the zone really can disrupt a lot of teams. We did a good job rotating and rebounding. Every time I looked up, either Nneka, Chiney or Kayla was grabbing the rebound."

[+] EnlargeCourtney Vandersloot
AP Photo/Elaine ThompsonCourtney Vandersloot, No. 21, finished with 117 points and 40 assists in four NCAA tournament games, including 25 points against Stanford.

VanDerveer said that, at halftime, her assistants talked her into using the zone defense, which Stanford doesn't implement a lot but did run through in practice.

"I said, 'We'll stay in it as long as they're not bombing us out of it,'" VanDerveer said. "And we were able to stay in it the whole second half."

The senior Vandersloot finished this tournament with 117 points and 40 assists in four games. She was a marvelous March performer, and can look forward to the WNBA draft on April 11.

"It's tough right now," Vandersloot said of reflecting on this 31-5 season. "But when we look back, this team achieved the goals we set."

She and the Bulldogs put on quite a show for their hometown fans. Monday was the end of the line for Gonzaga's upset train, but the Bulldogs enlivened this Spokane Regional. Stanford, though, owned it.

The Cardinal (33-2) played exactly like the team that ended UConn's streak in December and then ran the table in the Pac-10.

"I wish them well," Graves said. "I hope they go just knock the Final Four dead."

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.