Michelle Smith WBB Feature: Stanford tests USWNT on first stop of College Tour

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Stanford Athletics

STANFORD, Calif. – The biggest round of applause, unsurprisingly, rained down on the most familiar face.

For the first time since 2012, Nneka Ogwumike stepped on to the court at Maples Pavilion Saturday evening, the place where she carved out one of the best careers in the history of Pac-12 women’s basketball.

Ogwumike came back in a uniform and took her usual spot in the paint, this time wearing a “USA” jersey emblazoned across her chest. Her sister Chiney sitting courtside, Ogwumike scored the first points of the game for team USA off the tip.

By the end of the game, no one had more points or rebounds in the game than Nneka Ogwumike. Also, unsurprisingly.

Led by Ogwumike’s 23 points, 12 rebounds and four assists, the U.S. women’s national team began its preparations for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo with a 95-80 exhibition win over third-ranked Stanford.

When she came off the floor with 1:11 to go in the game to a huge ovation, she went straight to the Stanford bench to hug the Cardinal players.

Ogwumike talked to the crowd after the game, thanking them for the support.

“I’m grateful for the opportunity,” Ogwumike said. “I’m grateful to wear both Stanford and USA on my chest.”

“It was just great to be back,” Ogwumike said after the game. “I see a lot of familiar faces here, everywhere, on the court…We are just grateful these teams have agreed to play against us. We have a really great opportunity to develop the chemistry we need going into the next Olympics….

“I want to say thank you to everyone for having me back, and…I am still undefeated at Maples.”

She’s right about that. In four years at Stanford, she never lost a game at home on the way to four straight trips to the NCAA Women's Final Four.

Ogwumike, who is aiming to make her first Olympic roster in Tokyo, was one of two former Pac-12 players on the floor for Team USA in this game, the first in a West Coast swing that includes games next week at No. 7 Oregon State and top-ranked Oregon. Layshia Clarendon, who led Cal to a Final Four across the Bay during her college career, was also on the floor. Washington star Kelsey Plum, the NCAA's all-time leading scorer, is also on the USA roster, but missed Saturday's game with a personal commitment. She is scheduled to play both games in Oregon.

Clarendon returned to the floor for the first time in five months after missing much of the WNBA season with an ankle injury, as her team, the Connecticut Sun, ran to the WNBA Finals before falling to the Washington Mystics. The heady guard who led the Bears to the program’s first-ever Final Four in 2013, finished the game with two points, three rebounds and two assists off the bench.

“Yeah, it really felt like being at home,” Clarendon said, who calls Pac-12 games during the season as an analyst for the Pac-12 Network. “I felt really good out there and it was great to be able to just get in the car and drive here and be in such a familiar place and represent the Pac-12.”

Clarendon, who like Ogwumike, is looking to make her first Olympic roster, joked that she never would have figured that her first game back from injury would be with the national team alongside some of the world’s best players.

“Figures, right?” she laughed.

Ogwumike talked after the game about the importance of this exhibition schedule for the U.S. team heading into the Olympic year, not only to build chemistry, but to build momentum and interest in a team that has won six straight Olympic gold medals.

“We are trying to use this as an opportunity not only to develop our team, but grow the sport, grow women in sport,” Ogwumike said. “I don’t think you should ever take winning for granted. Yeah, no.”

Stanford, ranked No. 3 in the nation in the first Associated Press poll of the season, showed its depth and talent, leading the U.S. National team for much of the game before Ogwumike scored at 3:36 left in the first half to give the U.S. team their first lead.

The veteran U.S. team, anchored by four-time Olympic gold medalists, Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi, ran out to a 17-point lead as the game wore on. It was U.S. team’s first game together as they prepare for the FIBA Americas Pre-Olympic qualifying tournament in Argentina beginning on November 10. Bird and guard Skylar Diggins Smith missed the entire WNBA season.

Taurasi, Clarendon and Augustus had their time during the WNBA season seriously limited by injuries. All of them were playing their first major minutes in months, and in some cases, more than a year.

But the Cardinal came out strong, leading by as many as nine points in the first half before Team USA outscored them 80-60 over the final three quarters.

Veteran guards Kiana Williams and DiJonai Carrington finished the game with 17 points each. And Stanford made 10 3-pointers to keep the game close.

Thirteen players saw time on the floor for the Cardinal, 10 of them getting on the scoreboard.

“Stanford is really difficult to play against and we got exactly what we needed,” said Team USA coach Cheryl Reeve. “We knew the value in playing Stanford. What I enjoyed was the style of play. How many difficult positions they put you in. Their movement, their ability to shoot without hesitation. It’s a challenge. I just like that we were challenged. I know that’s exactly what Tara hoped for. It’s not a team that we would want to play every night.”

Not that the folks at Stanford would mind having Nneka around a little more often.

Michelle Smith is a contributing writer for pac-12.com. She has covered pro and college sports for espnW, San Francisco Chronicle, The Athletic and AOL Fanhouse. She was has won several awards, including the WBCA's Mel Greenberg Media Award, presented annually to a member of the media who has best displayed commitment to advancing the role of the media in women's basketball. For previous Michelle Smith features on pac-12.com, visit the archives page.

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