- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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You want to tell Stanford freshman Chiney Ogwumike to enjoy this NCAA tournament to the hilt. But that would be like telling a puppy to playfully maul her new squeaky toy. It's totally unnecessary. She needs no such instruction.
"I really was emotional before the game," Chiney said after the Cardinal's victory Monday in the Spokane Regional final. "The seniors are fabulous people, and I don't want to stop playing with them, first of all.
"And second of all, I'm just excited to be here! A chance to play in the Final Four! I just love experiencing things to the fullest. I wanted this opportunity really bad."
Spokane No. 1 seed Stanford is at its fourth consecutive Final Four, and the program's 10th overall. For the older Cardinal players, there are the memories of almost-but-not-quite from the past three years, as Stanford fell in the title game in 2008 and 2010, and the semifinals in 2009.
For Tara VanDerveer, her coaching staff, and the loyal Stanford fans of a certain age, the focus is obviously on this year but the mind might not help but wander back over the past two decades.
The Cardinal have consistently been the West Coast's best women's college hoops team during that time. What passed for a "really rough" period for Stanford was 1998-2001, three seasons during which the Cardinal had a 58-32 record. Stanford still made the NCAA tournament each of those seasons and has not finished with less than 26 victories since.
Still this is the program's seventh trip to the women's Final Four since Stanford last won a national championship, in 1992. And in the ensuing time, the Cardinal have knocked on the door a lot but not gotten in.
However, something else has happened during those 19 years: Chiney Ogwumike has grown up. Her lifetime has been lived in that span; She was born March 21, 1992, and on that day, Stanford beat UC Santa Barbara in the NCAA tournament's second round on its way to the national title that came April 5.
There already was a toddler, Nneka, in the Ogwumike home then, awaiting Chiney's arrival. VanDerveer was busy guiding what she affectionately calls her "bucket of bolts" team to the NCAA championship then. She couldn't possibly know that in the same house in greater Houston resided her future superstar frontcourt: a newborn and 21-month-old.
Nneka was a key performer for the Cardinal as a freshman and a sophomore. Adding Chiney has made Stanford all the more maddening to try to stop inside. This season, 6-foot-2 Nneka is averaging 17.0 points and 7.6 rebounds, while 6-3 Chiney is at 11.9 and 8.1.
In their two victories over North Carolina and Gonzaga at the Spokane Regional, the sisters combined for 76 points and 40 rebounds. And Gonzaga coach Kelly Graves added an important fact: "They're nice people, too."
Earlier at the regional, Stanford senior Kayla Pedersen talked about enjoying the wide-eyed and thrilled reaction of a rookie like Chiney to everything that happens during an NCAA tournament.
You can't actually ever experience anything for the first time twice but you can kind of recapture it by witnessing somebody else's inaugural voyage. Just as UConn's Bria Hartley and Stefanie Dolson, Notre Dame's Natalie Achonwa and Texas A&M's Karla Gilbert are freshmen going through their first Final Four not just as observers but likely important contributors, Chiney and rookie teammate Toni Kokenis will do the same for Stanford.
Chiney has attended the Final Four before; she came the previous two seasons to watch her sister in action.
"But it's different, of course," Chiney said. "Being the 'little sister,' not with the team. All this year, we had these expectations of ourselves. It was always, 'Final Four, Final Four.' Toni and [fellow freshman] Sara James and I would just look at each other and say, 'We want it so bad!'"
Chiney acknowledged she didn't sleep much the night before the regional final -- "I mean I did sleep, but I didn't. You know what I mean?" -- because she was so eager to play in that game.
After the victory, she talked about how she and her sisters combined for the rebounding edge that's a huge part of why Stanford has been so hard to beat all season.
Um, wait a second. Sisters? There are two more Ogwumike sisters at home but
"Nneka and Kayla and I," Chiney explained. "Kayla understands our 'twin-speak.' Or, you know, our 'sister-speak.'"
Nneka and Chiney are close enough in age that it can seem like they're twins -- twin terrors if you're trying to box them out. They refer to the 6-4 Pedersen as their other sister on this team because she grasps the way they communicate better than anybody else.
"I can define 'sister-speak' like this," Chiney said. "They'll call a play, and I never have to say, 'What?' Because Kayla will say automatically, 'Chiney, don't worry, go here.' And that's what Nneka has been doing all season.
"Nneka and I can just look at each other and communicate without saying anything. We can do that with Kayla, too. I think the whole team is starting to get it, but Kayla's really got it down."
Pedersen is very close to her younger brother, Kyle, but she doesn't have any sisters. Except, now she kind of does in the Ogwumikes.
"I spend a lot of time with them, and Chiney has looked to Nneka and I for that leadership and getting used to the program," Pedersen said. "We're great friends off the court, too. And on the court, we just click. I'm very happy to be the third sister."
Nneka said, "We kind of realized early in the season, 'Hmmm, Kayla really gets us.' It helps that she plays our position and she knows where we're coming from."
Nneka, Pedersen and the entire team get a lift from how exuberant Chiney is. It doesn't ever get "old" going to the Final Four, but when you've done it three times like Pedersen and Jeanette Pohlen, or twice like Nneka, maybe just a little of the gee-whiz elation would understandably fade.
Except it won't this time, because Chiney is there, having a blast.
"The whole weekend, she's just been talking about, 'Nneka, I just don't know what it really feels like, because the last two times I've been in the stands,'" Nneka said of Chiney's mind-set during the regional. "I was just trying to help her and just let her know how exciting it is, but also trying to calm her nerves. She's a starting freshman, she's never been in this situation before."
And while that might, indeed, be nerve-wracking, it's also wonderful. Chiney's whole career is still in front of her, and it looks to be very illustrious. But this will always be special: A teenager getting to end her first season of college basketball at the Final Four.
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.
Fifteen days before Stanford won its last NCAA title, Chiney Ogwumike was born. Nineteen years later, the freshman's steady play has helped the Cardinal reach their 10th Final Four.