Stanford vs. Gonzaga: Game Preview
By Michelle Smith
SPOKANE, Wash. - Chiney Ogwumike radiates with the excitement of a freshman.
Kayla Pedersen and Jeanette Pohlen and even Chiney's big sister Nneka, they all smile knowingly. They've been there and they are pretty excited themselves.
"I'm just taking it all in right now," Chiney Ogwumike said Sunday with a huge grin on her face.
She's ready for her Final Four experience, as Pedersen, Pohlen and Nneka have gotten theirs over the past three years.
"This is my first one, so as they all have high expectations, I am trying to match that expectation," Chiney said.
But this achievement, reaching this point in the NCAA Tournament, is hardly old-hat for Stanford's veteran players. They want to finish their careers with a national championship and Monday night's NCAA Regional Final game against Gonzaga can only be viewed as the next step. A very big next step.
"I think what's most exciting for us is seeing (the freshmen's) faces," Pedersen said. "Like walking on to a charter plan and Chiney is going crazy because it's so cool. I think our freshmen experiencing this makes us realize that we shouldn't take anything for granted. We made it to the Elite Eight and that's a huge accomplishment, but at the same time, we want to have our freshmen go a little bit farther so they can experience that too."
The top-seeded Cardinal came off the floor Saturday night and breathed a collective sigh of relief after a 72-65 win over No. 5 seed North Carolina, a game that was "too close for comfort," according to Pedersen.
But what's next is also enough to make a player's heart race.
Stanford (32-2) will take the floor at Spokane Arena on Monday night against upstart Gonzaga, the No. 11 seed who have become the Cinderella story of the women's Tournament with their impressive run.
The Bulldogs beat Louisville Saturday night to reach the Elite Eight for the first time in their program's history and they did it in front of an incredibly loud crowd of more than 10,000, most of whom were there to cheer them on.
Most of those folks are going to be back on Monday to see if they can send Gonzaga to the Final Four. And most of them will be cheering lustily against the Cardinal.
But Stanford players said Sunday they are totally OK with that.
"I think it doesn't really matter about the crowd," said Pohlen, the Pac-10 Player of the Year. "If we go out there and do what we need to do and not worry about things outside of the game, then we'll be successful."
Pedersen said the Cardinal will look to make the crowd a "non-factor."
"I think it's going to be extremely exciting to play in front of that many people," Pedersen said. "That's what makes it fun. When everybody's kind of rooting against you, I think that's where we thrive."
Gonzaga is led by point guard Courtney Vandersloot, who has been a star throughout the postseason. Vandersloot broke the NCAA single-season assist record Saturday night and last Monday, she became the first player in Division I basketball history to reach the milestone of 2,000 points and 1,000 assists.
She will be the key to Stanford's defensive game plan. The first time the two teams played in Spokane back in November, Vandersloot had 24 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds, though the Cardinal came out with the 74-68 win.
Vandersloot was the tournament's leading scorer through the first two rounds and scored 29 points against Louisville Saturday night. She's averaging 30.7 points in three tournament games.
"To prepare for her, you don't sleep a lot," Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said. "She can do so many things. She's a great player who makes other players around her better.
"I think that the thing you try to do is keep her in front of you and not let her get to the basket, not let her make the pass, get all the assists she gets."
The Bulldogs have a strong supporting cast as well with forwards Kayla Standish and Katelan Redmon.
Gonzaga might be an 11-seed coming into this tournament, but the Bulldogs haven't played like there's that much at all separating them from the best teams in the country.
"People are going to give us their best game no matter what," Chiney Ogwumike said. "The numbers (seeds) do no matter, whether it's (11) or (1). I think people focus more on what happens during tip-off and I think that's what the most important thing is."