Top-seeded Stanford opens NCAAs at home vs. Tulsa

Surprisingly, Stanford’s Chiney Ogwumike feels little pressure

this NCAA tournament.

Not when an entire nation is eyeing whether Brittney Griner and

No. 1 Baylor can defend their championship.

And even if the top-seeded Cardinal are seeking a sixth straight

trip to the Final Four and would face a possible showdown with

Pac-12 rival California in the Spokane regional final with a berth

to New Orleans at stake. It’s largely up to Ogwumike this year with

her big sister, Nneka, long gone and now a WNBA star and reigning

rookie of the year with the Los Angeles Sparks.

”This year more than ever it’s no pressure, even though we have

a 1 seed. The whole world has framed it Baylor versus the field,

right?” Ogwumike said before hitting the practice floor Saturday.

”Honestly, it’s really worked in our favor because we feel no

pressure.”

First, Stanford (31-2) will face No. 16 seed Tulsa (17-16) in

its NCAA opener at home in Maples Pavilion on Sunday. In the second

game of the day on Stanford’s campus, eighth-seeded Michigan

(21-10) will face No. 9 Villanova (21-10).

The Tulsa team won 10 of its final 13 games and five in a row

after an improbable run to the Conference USA tournament title as

the sixth seed – led by senior Tiffani Couisnard, who balances her

basketball and school life with being mother to a 2-year-old

son.

”We kept renewing our minds, refocusing, and remembering that

anything is possible,” Couisnard said. ”If we just give it all we

have, we can achieve anything and we can win. I think that

mentality is what we bought into.”

Second-year Golden Hurricane coach Matilda Mossman has Tulsa

back in the tournament for the first time since the program

advanced to the second round in 2006. While beating Stanford at

home is a daunting task, so was the road Tulsa had to take to get

this far.

”If we didn’t believe the unexpected could happen, we wouldn’t

have made the trip,” Mossman said. ”For our program, it’s the

first step in getting our program back to our 2006 days. Before the

conference tournament started, we told our team that there are two

types of teams left: There’s the team that is finished playing,

they’re ready to turn in their gear, they’re ready for their spring

break, they’ve checked out. The other type of team is the team that

doesn’t want their season to end.”

If the season is going to continue past Sunday, Tulsa must find

a way to slow down Pac-12 Player of the Year Ogwumike, with her

averages of 22.4 points and 13.1 rebounds. Mossman’s plan is for

her players – two or three of them at a time – to match Ogwumike’s

energy on both ends of the floor.

Longtime Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer isn’t ready to make any

bold predictions about her current team returning to the Final

Four.

”We don’t have as much firepower as we have in the last five

years, this is probably in a lot of ways the least, maybe talented,

and least in some ways tournament-experienced team,” she said.

”My experience has been in some ways that takes some pressure off

of people, and hopefully they can play loose and excited basketball

like we did when we were in Hawaii to beat Baylor.”

That victory on Nov. 16 in Honolulu is the lone blemish on the

Lady Bears’ 32-1 record.

VanDerveer’s team has often been inconsistent since then, most

notably in an embarrassing 61-35 loss at home to Connecticut on

Dec. 29. That snapped the Cardinal’s 82-game, home-winning streak

at Maples.

”We don’t have Nneka, we don’t have Kayla (Pedersen) or

Jeanette (Pohlen) or Jayne Appel or Candice Wiggins. Those are

first-round draft picks,” VanDerveer said. ”This is a tough

puzzle to put together, but I would never underestimate this group.

The strength of this team is their cohesiveness. There’s not a

selfish bone in the body of anyone in this locker room. We will

have to play well. This hasn’t been like a perfect season.”

While VanDerveer won’t rule out the return of Toni Kokenis in a

limited role before this season ends, she isn’t counting on it,

either, saying ”it’s not looking good.” Kokenis hasn’t played

since Feb. 3 at Oregon State because of an undisclosed medical

condition, but said Saturday she is still hopeful of playing for

the Cardinal next season.

In fact, VanDerveer must figure out what defensive combinations

might work best to take Golden Hurricane leading scorer Taleya

Mayberry out of her game. She is averaging 18.7 points.

”You miss someone with great tournament experience, her

athleticism,” VanDerveer said. ”She is someone you’d want

guarding Mayberry.”

Michigan has reached back-to-back NCAA tournaments for the first

time since 2000-01, with a familiar NCAA coaching face in Kim

Barnes Arico. She took St. John’s to the Fresno Regional semifinals

last season before losing to Duke, and lost to Stanford at Maples

in the second round of the 2011 tournament.

”Every year,” Barnes Arico said, smiling. ”It’s sunny this

time.”

Now, back in the Bay Area to play the NCAAs for the second time

in three years, she leads the Wolverines into a matchup she knows

well from her Big East days.

Barnes Arico spent 10 years coaching against 35th-year Villanova

coach Harry Perretta.

”It’s kind of a bummer it’s Harry and he runs that system,”

Barnes Arico said. ”It took me a long time at St. John’s to be

able to beat them and be able to stop them.”

And Perretta wasn’t thrilled to see Michigan and Barnes Arico

when brackets were announced Monday. He would have preferred a team

that didn’t know his motion offense so well. Perretta recommended

Barnes Arico for the Michigan job, too.

The teams play similar perimeter-oriented styles. In fact,

Perretta has taught Barnes Arico aspects of the motion offense.

”We usually do better against teams that either the coach

hasn’t seen us very much or the team hasn’t seen each other very

much,” Perretta said.