Ogwumike Has Found Way In Second Season At Stanford

March 26, 2010

By: Janie McCauley, Associated Press

STANFORD, Calif. - Nnemkadi Ogwumike made an explosive, twisting drive to the basket so rarely seen in the women's game a referee immediately blew her whistle and called a travel.

Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer couldn't believe it. Nobody could, even if everyone who witnessed the incredible play shook their head in amazement that even the uber-athletic Ogwumike was capable of such a move.

The official apologized to Ogwumike afterward, realizing the Pac-10 Player of the Year actually hadn't traveled at all.

'No hard feelings,' Ogwumike said later, after her Cardinal were safely into the second round of the NCAA tournament following a rout of UC Riverside. 'Honestly I kind of surprised myself with that move. Afterward the ref said it wasn't a travel and she made a bad call. I wasn't used to doing it, either.'

One thing is certain when it comes to Stanford's sophomore star: If the top-seeded Cardinal are going to advance to San Antonio for another Final Four, Ogwumike will be a big reason why.

Stanford (33-1) takes a 24-game winning streak into its matchup with fifth-seeded Georgia in the Sacramento Regional semifinals Saturday night at Arco Arena.

Ogwumike, who goes by her shortened first name of 'Nneka,' truly means it that she wasn't mad at that official. It's just not in her nature to react negatively to such things.

The 6-foot-2 forward has more important business at hand - like leading Stanford to that highly anticipated rematch everyone is expecting with undefeated defending champion Connecticut in the NCAA title game.

'Nneka's amazing,' teammate Rosalyn Gold-Onwude said. 'Nneka's always been good but after one year of experience under her belt, she's like a woman among children, really. It's like an aerial display of athleticism.'

Ogwumike and the perennial Pac-10 champions haven't lost since falling at No. 1 UConn back on Dec. 23, their lone defeat all season.

As is often the case, the Cardinal want to win it all for their seniors, most notably All-America center Jayne Appel and Gold-Onwude.

'This year, we don't want it to be Jayne's last game. We don't want her last game to be the fifth game in, we want it to be the sixth game in and we want to win that game,' Ogwumike said in reference to the NCAA final. 'I think everyone's playing for her and for Ros and for all our other seniors, and more so for each other in that respect.'

Ogwumike - the oldest of four girls whose parents emigrated to the United States nearly three decades ago from their native Nigeria to attend college - has taken her game to a new level this season. Always one to ask questions in order to get better, she's truly a student of the game.

She speaks up more regularly now, too, taking pride in being picked a captain.

'I'm more of a knowledgeable player. I've almost acquired some wisdom,' she said. 'When you first step on the court here, you're integrating into a new program and a new team, new plays, a new school. Not only have I gotten more used to life here at Stanford, the relationships I've developed and continue to develop help me to become the person that I am and the player that I am. My team has helped me become more versatile.'

Nneka Ogwumike combined for 42 points, 20 rebounds and eight assists in Stanford's first two tournament victories, over Riverside and Iowa, and shot 55.6 percent from the floor.

She leads the Pac-10 in scoring at 18.5 points per game and is making a league-best 62.9 percent of her shots. She is also the conference's second-leading rebounder with a 9.5 average.

'She's beautiful to watch,' Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said. 'This place should be sold out every game just to watch her play. She's a physical specimen. You can't box her out. We tried hard but she floats over the top of you.'

Ogwumike worked hard between her freshman and sophomore seasons to develop a go-to jumper from the free-throw line. The ability to spot up and pound the ball inside has made her even tougher to defend. She also jumps higher than just about everybody on the court, leaping to pull down a one-handed rebound or catch a high lob pass to the post.

While Ogwumike follows so many other great players to go through Stanford - Nicole Powell, Candice Wiggins and Appel of late - she wasted no time making a name for herself on The Farm. She will surely go down as one of the program's best ever by the time she's done.

'Last year in this (second-round) game, she had 27 against San Diego State and that was exciting,' said VanDerveer, Stanford's 24th-year coach. 'Now, we expect that every game from Nneka. She's one of the foundation players.'

Ogwumike's list of accomplishments was plenty long before she even arrived in the Bay Area for college.

State basketball title and a trip to the state semifinals in volleyball. Senior class president. Homecoming queen. Fundraising leader to help the family of a Texas high school coach in Houston who died of leukemia, and organizer of a run-a-thon to help children in Darfur.

She's also a former gymnast, and can still perform a back flip - not that VanDerveer would be in favor of her doing so. Ogwumike gave up the sport at age 11 when she got too tall.

Teammate JJ Hones can't remember ever hearing Ogwumike complain about anything, and that even goes for those grueling offseason track workouts. That attitude, along with her natural talent and work ethic, has allowed Ogwumike to keep getting better.

Take that jumper she's been perfecting.

'It's almost like money, guaranteed,' Gold-Onwude said. 'Everybody's rooting for her. Nneka's probably one of the most positive people I've met in my life, period. She's just contagious. On the court and off the court, she's so nice. I'm just glad to see wonderful things happen for her.'

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