A fourth straight trip to the Final Four is within Stanford’s reach.
A national championship? That, too, is in sight.
Behind the athletic and strong Ogwumike sisters Nnemkadi and Chiney, the Stanford Cardinal slipped past the North Carolina Tar Heels 72-65 late Saturday in the Spokane Regional women’s basketball semifinals before 10,717 at the Arena.
Stanford (32-2) takes on Gonzaga (31-4) in the Elite Eight on Monday night. Tipoff is at 6 with an ESPN audience looking on live. It will be a rematch from a game between the teams at Gonzaga in November when Stanford topped the Bulldogs 84-78.
The Cardinal won for the 26th straight time, but they had to work start to finish in this one.
The Ogwumikes combined for 35 points with older sister Nnemkadi leading the way with 19. They also combined for 14 rebounds. Kayla Pedersen chipped in 15 points and nine rebounds.
Stanford’s defense stepped up big in the final minute, causing two critical turnovers just 31 seconds apart.
“They have a heckuva team,” Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said of North Carolina. “They stepped up and made big plays. Our team stayed in there and battled. It was classic survive and move on.”
The Cardinal punished the Tar Heels inside, scoring 34 points in the key. Stanford also outscored North Carolina 22-17 in second-chance points.
Italee Lucas tied the score at 59 when she made two free throws with 5:16 to go.
That’s when Nnemkadi Ogwumike went to work down low, scoring back-to-back baskets.
Lucas tied the score one final time, at 65, when she made two free throws with 2:56 left.
Lucas led North Carolina (28-9) with 22 points, five rebounds and four assists.
“I thought we battled hard,” North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell said. “At halftime I challenged them, if they would win the boards in the second half we’d win the game. We missed some shots and made a few mistakes that were the difference.”
Lucas thought the late turnovers were the difference.
“I think more than anything it was mental lapses,” Lucas said.
UNC overcame a rebounding deficit in the first half (28-18), finishing with a 50-47 advantage.
Hatchell was impressed with the Ogwumikes.
“They’re both just incredible athletes,” Hatchell said. “They’re great kids, I know them both really well. They’re going to win a lot of games because they’re both so athletic, so intelligent, so skilled. They can intimidate on defense with how athletic they are. They caused some of those turnovers there.”
The score was tied 12 times with nine lead changes.
It may not have been the start Stanford was looking for in the first half, but the Cardinal did finish strong. It used a 10-4 surge to take a 39-35 lead into halftime.
“Our team fought hard,” Nnemkadi Ogwumike said. “At halftime Coach told us we had to be more aggressive. We delivered. We did a really good job of staying together and staying poised.”
After a 3-pointer by She’la White gave the Tar Heels the lead back briefly at 31-29. Then Stanford started its final push. In that stretch, sophomore Joslyn Tinkle, a sophomore from Missoula, came off the bench to score two baskets before a 3-pointer by Toni Kokenis, another of Stanford’s sensational sophomores, put the Cardinal ahead 39-33.
At times the Cardinal had difficulties.
“We had a lot of people struggling tonight,” VanDerveer said. “Some of it was us and some of it was them. We had to play well and make plays down the stretch.”
Lucas led the Tar Heels with 12 points and three assists in the first half.
Hatchell thought her team came together in recent weeks.
“The last month we had really been a championship team,” Hatchell said.