Stanford maintains focus, tops UCLA
LOS ANGELES -- Strains of the song "Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better" are wafting through the Pac-12 as Stanford and Cal match each other win for win through the conference schedule.
Close in the rankings, dead-even in the standings at 13-1, with losses only to one another to blemish their records, both teams are zooming head-long toward a thrilling photo finish.
To which Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer says, "Eh."
"It doesn't affect us," VanDerveer said after Stanford did its part to hold first place with a hard-fought 68-57 win at UCLA, about an hour before Cal closed out its weekend sweep with a 72-64 win over USC. "If they lose, it doesn't make us better, and it doesn't make them better if we lose."
But in a new universe in which the Pac-12 television network schedule is often putting one game on after the other, offering either team the frequent opportunity to know the other's final score before they hit the floor, surely that motivates VanDerveer's Cardinal?
"It doesn't matter," VanDerveer said. "I'm not even sure our players are paying attention to what Cal's doing."
Make no mistake, VanDerveer isn't making the case for indifference, merely self-interest at this crucial point in the season.
She is spending less time looking at the teams -- such as Cal, UCLA, Colorado and Washington -- who are closing the gap on her program, than the one in front of her at practice every day.
This the least formidable Stanford team VanDerveer has fielded in at least five years. Her star player, junior Chiney Ogwumike, shines brightly, but her question marks loom large as the postseason approaches and the Cardinal makes a run at a record sixth consecutive appearance in the Final Four. There are still gaps, points of inexperience, things Stanford doesn't know about itself.
Those are the matters that occupy her attention the most.
What does her lineup look like without junior guard Toni Kokenis, her most experienced backcourt player, who missed both games this weekend with an undisclosed illness that has kept her out of the lineup at various points all season? VanDerveer went bigger against the Bruins on Sunday and it worked out, but will Kokenis' experience be missed somewhere down the line?
Can her young wing players -- Bonnie Samuelson and Taylor Greenfield -- give her team consistent play on defense, and some scoring, off the bench?
Can sophomore point guard Amber Orrange, who finished Sunday's game with nine points, six rebounds, seven assists and five steals, contribute more offensively?
The picture is becoming clearer in at least one major way.
Redshirt junior post Mikaela Ruef is improving rapidly inside. Ruef played 31 minutes against the Bruins and finished with 10 points, 10 rebounds, a solid double-double. She is physical inside and increasingly confident to shoot that pretty jumper that helped her get recruited in the first place.
"She had a great game, we need more of those," VanDerveer said.
What else VanDerveer knows is she is getting the best basketball of Ogwumike's career.
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"She has put this team on her back," VanDerveer said. "I couldn't be prouder of her."
Ogwumike had 26 points and seven rebounds against UCLA, with four blocks.
Asked whether Ogwumike should be considered a serious national player of the year candidate, especially considering a field that includes Brittney Griner and Skylar Diggins, VanDerveer took up for her star player and made a fine case.
Ogwumike is averaging 22.7 points and 12.3 rebounds with 20 double-doubles, and has averaged more than 21 points a game against 10 Top 25 opponents this season. She is the only player in the country to rank in the top six in scoring, rebounding, field-goal percentage and double-doubles. And she has kept the Cardinal afloat at every point this season.
"I don't think there is anyone doing more for their team than Chiney does for us," VanDerveer said. "Look at her numbers, she is having a spectacular year. She has one senior on her team and she does not have another All-American. This thing for me is she is so consistent. She has so many double-doubles. She didn't get one today, but I'll bet she gets one next game. She would get my vote."
Ogwumike hid her face and laughed as the coach ran off her resume, a moment of self-effacement.
But Ogwumike is a hungry player. And she doesn't not want to lose a Pac-12 title on her watch.
"We know we can't take a game off, can't take any opponent lightly," Ogwumike said. "Cal senses an opportunity, I'm sure, but this is how we are, we focus on us."
It has been years since Stanford was pushed to the limit in the conference standings this way.
But VanDerveer doesn't feel the push from behind that the Golden Bears are providing, only the pull of the postseason with a team that isn't quite ready yet.