STANFORD, Calif. — To look at the numbers, the task would seem tall for the Penn State women’s — like Mount Everest tall.
Beating Stanford on its home court in the NCAA Tournament rarely happens.
The Cardinal are 28-4 in NCAA games at the Maples Pavilion. They’re 14-0 at home this season and are looking to make their sixth Final Four in the last seven seasons and 12-th overall under the reign under Tara VanDerveer. They’re 61-7 against lower seeded teams.
Those statistics are just some of what’s on the opposite side of the ledger as the third-seeded Lady Lions (24-7) try to knock off No. 2 Stanford (31-3) and advance to the Elite Eight for the first time under Coquese Washington. The winner will face either top-seeded South Carolina (29-4) or No. 4 North Carolina (26-9) on Tuesday for a Final Four slot.
Having gone from prohibitive favorites in the first two rounds to underdogs in a matter of days doesn’t faze the Lady Lions. This season they’ve faced No. 1 Connecticut and No. 2 Notre Dame, both unbeatens who advanced to the Elite Eight on Saturday. They’ve played at LSU twice and faced the Huskies in a glorified home game at Rhode Island in the past two NCAA tournaments.
A tough Big Ten slate, in which Penn State was 7-1 on the road on the way to its third consecutive league title, also gives the Lady Lions hope they can pull off the upset.
“I like being the underdog,” reserve forward Peyton Whitted said. “Our team loves being called the underdogs. We kind of came in as underdogs in conference play because people weren’t really expecting us to win. Everybody is excited for the challenge.”
“You can’t really do anything else but embrace it,” added wing Ariel Edwards, who is averaging 21 points over her last seven games. “It is what it is. It’s the seed that we have. We’re playing on their home court. That’s where we ended up. We’ve just got to come out and try to execute our game plan the best we can.”
“We definitely know that it’s going to be a huge challenge playing out here,” said Maggie Lucas. “We rely on the fact that we have played in tough environments before. We’ve won at Purdue, at Michigan State. The Big Ten is a hard conference to play in and go on the road.”
Penn State coach Coquese Washington is well aware of Stanford’s home dominance in NCAA play, but emphasizes the challenge would be the same in any arena.
“Playing here at Maples has been very good for them over the years,” Washington said. “The focus for us is that it doesn’t matter whether you’re at home or on the road. It’s about execution. Our focus is going to be executing our game plan.”
And that plan will have to focus on the Cardinal’s Chiney Ogwumike, one of the most dominant players in the country. The 6-foot-4 senior is averaging 26.6 points and 12.1 rebounds per game, while shooting a blistering 61 percent from the field. She has scored 20 or more in all but five of Stanford’s games and has hit 30 or more 14 times.
“She’s one of a kind,” Lucas said.
“Chiney is really relentless,” Washington said. “Those types of players are really hard to guard because she doesn’t take any plays off. She certainly is the engine for this team and everybody feeds off of her.”
Ogwumike, who holds the Pac-12 record with 2,673 career points, is the prohibitive favorite to go No. 1 in April’s WNBA Draft.
“She can score with either hand,” Edwards said of the Cardinal standout. “She scores off the dribble. She’s got a really good 15- to 17-foot jump shot. You’re never going to really stop a player like that. … She’s going to get hers. She’s going to get at least 20 points. We’re just going to try to make it hard for her.”
“She’s so consistent offensively,” Lady Lion center Talia East added. “She works really well to get all of her touches. She’s a great defender. She’s going to alter you’re your shots. She’s probably the most challenging post player I’ve ever had to defend. I think the non-conference schedule that we have has prepared me for it. I’m excited to play.”
Ogwumike is the only Stanford player on the roster averaging double figures, but she credits her scoring prowess to her teammates.
“I have to play without the ball in my hands a lot,” Ogwumike said. “That’s why I have some of the most unselfish teammates that find me even though I might be doubled or tripled or something like that.”
VanDerveer said that Ogwumike is special in many ways.
“She’s a team player,” VanDerveer said. “She’s all about our team being successful. She’s a tremendous leader. She’s really steady even with all of the people that foul her and double her. She really is a very poised player. I think that is her strength.
“She’s strong. She’s a warrior. She really puts her team on her back and someone is some so dependable. She works hard every day.”
“I’ve never had to have a sit-down with Chiney and say, ‘Look it, you need to do this.’ I can only coach her four more games and I’m going to enjoy every one of them as much as I can.”
While Stanford relies heavily on Ogwumike, Washington says the Cardinal are much more. They’ve averaging 77.3 points per game on offense, while holding opponents to 59.7.
“I think you sell Stanford short a little bit,” Washington told a reporter, who asked about focusing only on Ogwumike. “They don’t win all those games with only one player. They’ve got outstanding players at every position. Maybe they’re a little underrated by the media, but they’re certainly not underrated by our team. We have to guard everybody.”
The Cardinal are sinking 36.7 percent of their 3-point attempts. Five different players have made more than 20 3-pointers and starter Lili Thompson is nailing 44 percent of her attempts.
“I think teams that try to stop a post presence tend to go to zone and they also risk outside shooting,” Ogwumike said. “I think that’s one area where our team has tried to improve on and we’re really great at. We have confident shooters. It’s just a matter that we have to knock down those shots.
Penn State enters the contest buoyed by an 83-61 romp over Florida, a contest Washington called the team’s “most complete” game of the season.
Lucas said the formula for another game like that is simple.
“We have to defend again,” the two-time Big Ten Player of the Year said. “That’s no different from what we had to do the last two games. It’s all about defense for us.”
After the moderator ticked off her many coaching accomplishments before her news conference Saturday, VanDerveer quipped, “And none of that will help us tomorrow.”
The Lady Lions have been getting big efforts from it four seniors in the NCAAs. Lucas (22.0), Edwards (17.5), Dara Taylor (13.0) and East (11.0) are all scoring in double figures in the tournament. Penn State’s defense is allowing 58.5 points in those games.
“Their team is a prototypical Big Ten team in a way,” VanDerveer said. “They’re big. They’re physical. They run the floor. They have outstanding guard play with Taylor and Lucas. We’re going to have our hands full. We’ve going to have to play very well.”
“Obviously, they have a size advantage, but we want to have the heart, the will advantage,” Ogwumike said. “Maggie Lucas is very talented. She’s like the headline for that team. I think it will give us a good challenge, a good opportunity to show how hard we’ve worked defensively this year.”