Stanford women get special opportunity to face top Americans

With USA on her uniform this time, Nneka Ogwumike dazzled as she has always done in Maples Pavilion.

Grinning afterward, she reminded everyone, “I’m still undefeated at Maples.”

Tara VanDerveer’s young Stanford team put on an impressive show of its own hosting U.S. stars Ogwumike, Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi on Saturday in what the Hall of Fame coach counted on providing a tremendous experience for her women. She noted afterward “our mission was accomplished” because the Cardinal gave the Americans a needed push.

Ogwumike returned to her former home floor and finished with 23 points and 12 rebounds in the U.S. team’s 95-80 victory over the Cardinal, ranked No. 3 in The Associated Press preseason poll.

The Stanford great now with the Los Angeles Sparks high-fived the Cardinal players and hugged the coaching staff when she left the game for good in the fourth quarter. Afterward she told the adoring crowd: “Get ready for us to go win another gold in Tokyo.”

“I’m really grateful to represent Stanford and USA in this game today,” Ogwumike said.

Layshia Clarendon can only imagine back to her college days at the University of California in Berkeley having the opportunity to match up with the best women’s players in the world, like Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi.

“I’m trying to think back to my college self and what it would have been like to play the national team with Sue and all these awesome people,” said Clarendon, a guard with the Connecticut Sun. “I think it goes always to representation matters, right? They get to see it to believe it kind of thing. Just being able to take the time at shootaround and chat with them a little bit afterward, and for them to see if that’s what you aspire to, to measure up and see how close you are to that Olympic level goal, obviously it helps them prepare for the Pac-12 and how good of a conference it is. It’s awesome. And any time you’re going against Tara there’s a level of, you know she’s got something up her sleeve.”

It marked the third time the Cardinal coach put the U.S. national team on the schedule in the lead up to an Olympic year, also in 1999 and 2007.

“It was probably everything that we hoped it would be,” U.S. co-coach Cheryl Reeve said. “Stanford’s very difficult to play against. We got exactly what we needed.”

VanDerveer asked her players to compete and play hard. They delivered.

“What a great opportunity for us to play against the best in the world,” VanDerveer said. “… They’re the Olympians, they are the icons of women’s basketball, Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi,” VanDerveer said, watching the top Americans warm up before the game and exchanging a hello and her gratitude to Bird as the Seattle Storm guard stretched along the baseline in Maples Pavilion. “They’re fantastic players.”

More than two decades ago, VanDerveer took a year away from Stanford in 1995 on the way to coaching the Americans to an Olympic gold medal at the 1996 Atlanta Games. Sure, this brings back some memories, but “that was a long time ago,” VanDerveer said with a smile.

“That was a really fun thing to do, but that was before some of these kids were born, anyone on our team and a lot of them on that team,” she said, noting for her team it means so much “just to get a chance to play against a great team and see what basketball at the highest level looks like. You can play against guys, but then people say, ‘Oh, it’s guys.’ These are women that are fit, strong, skilled, they sacrifice a lot of things to be able to be these great players.”

Bird and partner Megan Rapinoe, the American World Cup soccer star, attended the Golden State Warriors game Wednesday in San Francisco and took part in a postgame panel on the team’s LGBTQ night to discuss equality and inclusion.

Ogwumike starred for VanDerveer and Stanford, and she received a rousing ovation during introductions before tipoff and another standing ovation when she left the game late. Her younger sister Chiney, also a WNBA player and former Stanford star, received her Final Four ring years later from former Stanford associate head coach Amy Tucker, who kept it safe in her drawer all these years.

“This is pretty cool,” Nneka Ogwumike said, later adding, “It’s just kind of like flashbacks of all the moments that we had here.”


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