By Krista Pirtle
The No. 1 Baylor Lady Bears will face the No. 2 team in the nation for the third time this season at 8 p.m. Sunday in Denver.
This time it is the Stanford Cardinal in the Final Four, marking its fifth consecutive trip.
Both teams are led by Houston natives and unanimous picks on the Associated Press All-American team: senior Nnemkadi (Nneka) Ogwumike and junior Brittney Griner.
“We played against each other in AAU so I definitely remember little things, but it’s been awhile since we played each other,” Griner said.
Nneka was followed by her sister Cheni to Stanford, despite being heavily recruited by Baylor.
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“Athleticism,” head coach Kim Mulkey said. “They can post you up and take you to the basket. They can face up and shoot the mid-range jumpers. They aren’t 3-point shooters but can pull you away from the basket a little bit. They can put it on the floor and are outstanding rebounders and leaders.”
The dynamic duo of the Ogwumike sisters will be up against the 1-2 punch of Griner and junior Destiny Williams.
Attacking the glass will be key for the physical play down low.
“It’s going to be a big challenge for our post players,” sophomore Odyssey Sims said. “Our guard players are going to have to step up and help a lot. But it’s just going to be a great game, and we’re ready.”
The backcourt for Stanford features sophomore Toni Kokenis and freshman Amber Orrange, who have combined for an NCAA tournament average of 20.1 points per game, 8.3 rebounds and 9.5 assists.
The quickness of Sims and junior Kimetria (Nae Nae) Hayden should make running the offense difficult for Stanford.
Leading the Cardinal from downtown is junior Joslyn Tinkle, averaging 62 percent throughout the tournament.
For the Lady Bears, while Griner and Sims receive all the attention, Mulkey has made it clear that Hayden and junior Jordan Madden are the X-factors for this determined squad.
“I think that J [Jordan Madden] has the toughest thing every game and that’s to guard the best perimeter player, and I think she does a terrific job at it,” Williams said. “I thought Nae Nae did a terrific job at starting us with a run against Tennessee. You can’t sleep on them. If you do, they’ll make you pay. They play with so much energy for this program that people sometimes forget about them. They’ve helped us out a lot every game.”
Madden’s quickness and length on the perimeter will give Tinkle fits; if she doesn’t have the ball, she can’t knock down 3-pointers.
The defensive end for the Lady Bears has been what spurs on their offense this season. Its backbone is the 6-foot-8 structure of Griner who seems to go-go gadget block every shot attempted.
The other post, usually Williams, extends out more to the perimeter but works hard on the boards. Hayden and Madden provide tough defensive perimeter behind Sims who sets the tone with her pressure on the point guard.
Considering the altitude in Denver, the Lady Bears have met with their strength and conditioning coach and trainer about proper hydration, but fatigue could still be an issue.
But Baylor has depth.
“Terran Condrey hasn’t scored much the last couple of games because we haven’t needed it,” Mulkey said. “Terran can flat out shoot it. I think she’s a factor as much as Nae Nae and Jordan on the wing. I think Brooklyn Pope, even with a calf strain, came in the other night against Tennessee and gave us valuable minutes.”
For 40 minutes, there will be a battle to advance to the NCAA Championship game.