Stanford Region: Stanford returns to Final Four, knocking off UNC
The Associated Press
STANFORD, Calif. — Well after the final buzzer, Chiney Ogwumike darted across the court one last time to find big sister Nneka in the stands for a long celebratory embrace.
Ogwumike is carrying her team to Nashville and one last Final Four she planned for all along, going for 20 points and 10 rebounds as second-seeded Stanford beat North Carolina 74-65 on Tuesday night in the regional final on the Cardinal’s home floor.
Mikaela Ruef scored a career-high 17 points on the way to regional MVP honors, Amber Orrange added 14 and Bonnie Samuelson knocked down three three-pointers for 13 points off the bench for Stanford (33-3), which had its streak of five straight Final Fours snapped last March.
“People were making plays based on heart. It was just a heart game,” Ogwumike said. “I have the utmost faith in my teammates.”
Since the disappointment of that early exit against Georgia in the Spokane Region semifinals, Ogwumike, Ruef and their fellow seniors have made it their mission to get back to women’s basketball’s biggest stage.
All season long, Hall of Fame coach Tara VanDerveer called for more of her players to do their part, and Ogwumike’s supporting cast delivered when it mattered most.
When it was decided, Stanford’s players jumped in delight and quickly pulled on hats and T-shirts and began dancing at center court.
Allisha Gray scored 19 points for No. 4 seed North Carolina (27-10), which couldn’t pull off a Final Four reunion with Sylvia Hatchell after the coach’s season-long battle with leukemia.
North Carolina got the ball back with 49 seconds left after an offensive foul on Ruef but Xylina McDaniel missed a layin on the left side and Ruef secured the rebound. Samuelson converted two free throws with 21.1 to go.
“We did some things at the end I wish we could replay,” North Carolina associate coach Andrew Calder said. “I’m not going to look back. Having a Hall of Fame coach on the bench could have made a difference.”
When Orrange drove for a left-handed layin with 9.6 seconds remaining, Ogwumike went to her knees and pumped her arms. Stanford protected its unbeaten home record with one last memorable win to send Ogwumike, Ruef and the seniors out in style.
Ogwumike was honored as a member of The Associated Press women’s basketball All-America team for the second straight season, this time as an unanimous selection. Connecticut’s Breanna Stewart and Baylor’s Odyssey Sims were also on all 36 ballots selected by the national media panel that votes in the weekly top 25.
They were joined on the first team by Notre Dame’s Kayla McBride and Maryland’s Alyssa Thomas.