Player of year? Ogwumike could be good fit
STANFORD, Calif. -- Nneka Ogwumike came off the court with 57 seconds left in the game. Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer smiled, lifted her chin knowingly at her 6-foot-4 senior forward and hugged her. No words.
What was there to say?
Forty-two points. Seventeen rebounds. And less than a minute later, the fourth-ranked Cardinal were celebrating their 97-80 victory over No. 6 Tennessee at Maples Pavilion.
If Baylor's Brittney Griner is the household name, Notre Dame's Skylar Diggins is the queen of Twitter and Connecticut's Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis is the hot, new, young thing, where does Nneka Ogwumike fit in?
She might be the best player in the country.
Ogwumike took a night that began with an outpouring of respect and love for Pat Summitt -- a warm standing ovation and an emotional hug from VanDerveer greeted Summitt as she came onto the floor with her staff -- and turned it into a personal showcase.
Her athleticism, tenacity and energy made her unguardable. She responded to the teammates who were "in her ear," encouraging Ogwumike and telling her what they were seeing. She responded to the former teammates who were sitting close to the floor, cheering her on. She responded to the sight of the Stanford football team sitting in the stands, to superstar quarterback Andrew Luck, who stood and cheered and pumped his fists as she hit shots from almost every spot on the floor, hustled for loose balls, fed her teammates and yanked the ball out of the air.
And then after the game, she credited her teammates for their efforts in a "team win."
"That was one of the most incredible individual performances I've ever seen on this court," VanDerveer said.
That is high praise, considering the players who have come through this program. But Ogwumike owned the night, posting a career high in scoring and Stanford's first 40-point game since Jayne Appel went for 46 against Iowa State in the 2009 NCAA tournament.
She had some important help from point guard Toni Kokenis, who also set the bar with a career-high 26 points, including five 3-pointers. And sister Chiney finished with 14 points.
In all, the Cardinal put up more points on Tennessee than they had in any other game in the 24-year history of this series. And more points than anyone had scored against Tennessee since Louisiana Tech in 1997.
"It's not too often somebody puts up 42 points against us," said Tennessee associate head coach Holly Warlick. "Nneka inspired their whole team, offensively and defensively. We played in spurts. Stanford played for 40 minutes."
Ogwumike actually missed three of her first four shots from the floor. And then made 18 of the next 23, including a run of 11 in a row.
"This year there is no stopping her," VanDerveer said. "I told her she was a woman with girls out there. She dominated in a way I've never seen."
Tennessee stayed in a zone for much of the first half, trying to pack it in and keep the Ogwumike sisters off the boards. The Lady Vols took a 10-3 lead, and it looked to be working.
But Kokenis warmed up and started driving the ball into the lane, which loosened up things inside and out. The big night by the sophomore was particularly timely. Stanford's group of young guards has been diminished by injury. Alex Green is out for the season with a ruptured Achilles tendon. And now Jasmine Camp, who has started four games this season, is on crutches with a stress fracture in her foot that could end her season.
The Lady Vols shot 61.5 percent in the first half, but Stanford led 48-41. Shekinna Stricklen led Tennessee's offense (she finished with a career-high 27 points), but Stanford beat the Lady Vols on the boards (35-29 for the game), broke the press and started hitting 3-pointers, open shots necessitated by the attention being paid inside.
"It's tough to box both of them out," Tennessee forward Glory Johnson said of the Ogwumikes. "And it's hard when somebody can jump the same as you."
Tennessee (7-3) heads home after a long road trip -- the Lady Vols have been gone since they played DePaul in New York on Dec. 11 -- to rest over the holiday break and then shore up a defense that looked shaky against one of the country's elite teams.
Warlick was more than willing to buy the premise that Nneka Ogwumike is a legitimate national player of the year candidate, even in what is shaping up to be the Year of Griner.
"Just watch that tape," Warlick said, with seniors Johnson and Stricklen nodding their heads along. "She played like the player of the year tonight."
Stanford (8-1) pushed its home-court winning streak to 68 games in a surprisingly dominant way.
"We showed how important Maples is to us," Ogwumike said. "We want to defend this place like it's no other place."
But nobody should be surprised anymore about how dominant Nneka Ogwumike is capable of being.
Just watch the tape.