(Eds: Updates with details, quotes. With AP Photos.)By JANIE McCAULEYAP Sports Writer
Stanford has protected its home floor at Maples Pavilion with such pride and domination for decades that the Cardinal suddenly face a surprising task: avoiding a three-game losing streak.
Coach Tara VanDerveer’s patience is being tested, and she tries to remain positive through the struggles of her inexperienced team. VanDerveer and her staff certainly expected some bumps along the way after losing WNBA No. 1 overall draft pick Nnemkadi Ogwumike following a fifth straight Final Four season.
Now, her little sister, Chiney, is leading the charge. And without enough help, as VanDerveer pointed out.
”The load is a lot on my shoulders,” Ogwumike said. ”At the same time, I can’t allow that. We have to become a balanced team. One person can’t do it by themselves.”
No. 6 Stanford (14-2, 3-1 Pac-12) hosts 14th-ranked and first-place UCLA (13-2, 4-0) on Friday night looking to end a two-game skid at home – something most programs would hardly be fretting too much about, but this program isn’t like most. The Cardinal had their nation-best 82-game winning streak at home snapped in a lopsided 61-35 rout by Connecticut on Dec. 29, then they lost another in front of the spirited Maples crowd last Sunday, 67-55 to rival California.
That defeat ended an 81-game unbeaten run against conference opponents, so Stanford also wants to start a new winning streak against the Pac-12 when UCLA visits. The Bruins are 5-0 on the road so far.
The Cardinal haven’t lost three straight home games since early January of the 1986-87 season – way back in 27th-year coach VanDerveer’s second season on The Farm.
”My patience is tested a lot. I try to watch what we’re doing and try to be positive,” VanDerveer said. ”It’s disappointing, it’s frustrating. Chiney is a great player and a great leader. We’re just going to keep battling. It’s not going to be easy. How are we going to score?”
Always eager to see the West Coast shine on the national stage, VanDerveer is cheering for Lindsay Gottlieb’s Cal team and the other improving programs she still must face while seeking to capture a 13th consecutive conference crown.
”We beg and beg and beg for the Pac-12 to get players and step up,” VanDerveer said. ”This is a good thing in a bad way for us. We want them to make a statement.”
Now, Stanford needs to make a statement of its own – and fast.
VanDerveer has called on her entire roster to do more, and not just junior forward and leading scorer and rebounder Ogwumike. After Ogwumike’s 21.4 points and 11.6 rebounds, Joslyn Tinkle is scoring 12.0 points and Amber Orrange 10.8.
”I was kind of surprised we were able to go to the Final Four last year, losing Jeanette (Pohlen) and Kayla (Pedersen),” VanDerveer said. ”We’re going to need more from more people. Obviously, it’s tough, without Nneka it’s tough.”
Against Cal, the Cardinal committed 16 turnovers, were limited to five assists and shot just 35.2 percent – including making only 8 of 29 field goals in the second half and going 2 for 12 from long range.
Stanford got outhustled, outrebounded, beat in every way.
”I think it’s all intrinsic motivation. If we decide individually to be motivated, if we prioritize the moment we have, every possession in practice, it’s all down on us,” Ogwumike said. ”Coaches prepared us. One thing I know is Coach Tara is extremely motivated and she gets us prepared. It’s in our hands, literally. If everyone who’s out there chooses to play hard, I think that will change things.”
As for Ogwumike, she realizes she can only say so much to her teammates. She wants to lead by example, and she had never known what it felt like to lose on her home floor until recently. Her star sister went undefeated for her career at Maples.
”It was a great era. Hopefully, these two tough losses we’ve had here at Maples will motivate us to do better,” Ogwumike said. ”You can say a lot, you can talk a lot but you have to walk. It comes down on us if we want to step up, and hopefully that will come soon. …
”I think nothing this year has come easy. This is a character-building year, I think.”