Lady Bears set sights on summit in Denver

The top-seeded Lady Bears have embarked on a whirlwind of activities since arriving in Denver, but it's all about basketball tonight.

DENVER — The Baylor Lady Bears have arrived at the mountains.

The view looking south toward the horizon from downtown Denver drives that truth home. The Rockies aren’t just a local baseball team, they’re the breathtaking, snow-capped backdrop for this weekend’s Final Four.

Nevertheless, just because Baylor has reached Denver doesn’t mean it plans to stop climbing.

“We haven’t accomplished anything yet,” BU forward Destiny Williams said. “Our goal throughout the year was to win the championship. And once we get that, I think that we’ll all be satisfied.”

The next step toward scaling that summit arrives tonight, as the top-seeded and undefeated Lady Bears (38-0) meet fellow No. 1 seed Stanford in the national semifinals at about 8 p.m. Central time at the Pepsi Center. Should Baylor win, it would move on to play the Connecticut-Notre Dame winner for the national championship Tuesday night.

Since arriving in Denver on Thursday, the Baylor players and coaches have embarked on a whirlwind of activities and responsibilities, from a team photo at Mile High Stadium to a bevy of media interviews to a glitzy dinner with the other Final Four teams.

Through it all, they say their vision hasn’t been diverted.

“You can see the prize at the end,” post Brittney Griner said. “It’s right there. So it’s not hard (to stay focused) at all.”

Stanford (35-1) will present a unique and rugged challenge to Baylor’s quest. For one, the Cardinal are an unfamiliar foe, the only Final Four qualifier that the Lady Bears haven’t already played this season.

Stanford also owns a pair of rare jewels in senior forward Nnemkadi Ogwumike (22.5 ppg, 10.3 rpg) and her sophomore sister Chiney Ogwumike (15.3, 10.3).

“With Stanford, you’re going to see two post players that are outstanding,” Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said. “And I’d have to think, when’s the last time we had two that scored as much as those two do. You usually have one that’s superior to the other. But in this case, while Nneka gets all the attention, Chiney is ever bit as good as Nneka.”

Though they haven’t met in college, the Ogwumike sisters and Griner are familiar combatants, having faced off in high school and AAU games.

But Griner has grown since then, Nnemkadi Ogwumike said. Not so much physically — she still measured 6-foot-8 even in high school — but in the overall development of her game.

“She’s definitely gotten better,” Nnemkadi Ogwumike said. “She’s not just big, she’s athletic and she has skills, which makes it kind of a triple dagger.”

So Stanford must try to solve the riddle of blanketing Griner, while the Lady Bears draw the task of keeping the athletic Ogwumike siblings from wiping the glass clean.

While all those bodies are banging in the paint, the game could very well be won or lost on the perimeter. The Lady Bears’ backcourt quartet of Odyssey Sims, Jordan Madden, Terran Condrey and Kimetria “Nae-Nae” Hayden have been at their pestering best in the NCAA tournament, helping to hold Baylor’s four foes to a combined 31.9 percent shooting while forcing 65 turnovers.

Of course, even if Stanford’s guards happen to shake free, they don’t necessarily have the green light to go driving all willy-nilly to the goal.

That’s not a successful strategy against Baylor, Stanford coach Tara Vanderveer said.

“If your 5-7 guard goes in against Griner, she’s going to need a toothpick to pick out the leather from her teeth,” Vanderveer said. “I told our team — this is not a game to show me your macho move to the basket against Brittney Griner. I don’t need it.”

Vanderveer, like Mulkey, has a national championship. UConn’s Geno Auriemma and Notre Dame’s Muffet McGraw understand the feeling of cutting the nets down at the end of the season, too.

But Mulkey said all that coaching experience will be nullified in these final games.

“Look, it’s beyond coaches now,” she said. “The coaches have gotten each of their teams here. It’s now in the players’ hands. It’s now players making plays. The big stage is when the big-time players surface.”

 

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