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When fall practice began, Tara VanDerveer had no idea if her young team would get back to a fifth straight Final Four.
One thing she did know: Nnemkadi Ogwumike would do all in her power to get Stanford to Denver.
Ogwumike and Co. would like nothing more than to haul a championship trophy home from the Mile High City.
She made it happen on both ends of the floor with 29 points and nine rebounds Monday night despite constant double-teams, sending top-seeded Stanford past No. 2 seed Duke 81-69 in the Fresno Regional final for the Cardinal's fifth straight Final Four berth.
"I'm really proud of our team. If you asked me in the beginning of the season is this a Final Four team, I don't know if I could answer yes,'' VanDerveer said. "Nneka, she has put our team on her back almost all year. If it hasn't been Nneka it's been Chiney.''
Little sister, Chiney, did plenty to seal this one, too along with everybody else. Chiney Ogwumike grabbed 17 rebounds to go with 12 points and freshman Amber Orrange came through with 13 points and four assists as the Cardinal extended their school-record winning streak to 32 games.
``I told myself going into the game I was going to get every rebound,'' Chiney Ogwumike said.
She'll have to do that and then some in her next game.
Bring on Brittney Griner and unbeaten Baylor (38-0). Stanford is likely to pull in 6-foot-5 male practice player Andrew Klein to play the part of the 6-8 Griner in practice as the Cardinal did last year while preparing for a possible matchup with Baylor.
Stanford (35-1), looking for the program's first national title since 1992, will play Sunday night against the Lady Bears at the Pepsi Center.
"We don't get the chance often to be an underdog and totally overlooked,'' Cardinal coach Tara VanDerveer said.
Chelsea Gray had 23 points, four rebounds and four assists and Shay Selby scored 11 in her final college game for Duke (27-6), which fell short of reaching the program's first Final Four since 2006. The Blue Devils never got clicking on offense the way they had in their three NCAA wins.
"It was a good run,'' SeIby said. "I think this one probably hurt the most. When you're a sophomore or junior, it's, 'Oh, you have next year.' I have no next year. Hopefully I can say I left something with them that will help them for next year.''
The projected No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft, Nneka Ogwumike scored in the paint, on the perimeter, on leaping putbacks and even by knocking down a pretty 10-foot turnaround jumper late in the first half as the Cardinal built a comfortable 40-25 lead at the break.
``It was unfortunate for us. We tried to defend the inside and the outside. They hit some nice shots,'' Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie said.
Stanford boasted a strong rooting section that made the three-hour trip from the Bay Area to the Save Mart Center, including Cardinal football coach David Shaw and his wife, Kori. The couple sat alongside former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
In a matchup dubbed "nerd on nerd'' by Chiney Ogwumike for the schools' rigorous academic standards, Stanford's smart girls aced their latest final. But this group has its sights set on winning two more to make good on the most important test and give Hall of Fame 26th-year coach VanDerveer another long-awaited championship.
"This started before I even came to Stanford. I always wanted to be part of the culture,'' she said. ``This never gets old. Not a lot of teams get to say that they've gone. For me to get to say I've been on four times, that's a lot to ask for.''
Just as she has wanted all season during a challenging schedule featuring games with Connecticut, Tennessee, Texas and Xavier, VanDerveer got contributions from most everybody in a balanced effort.
Joslyn Tinkle knocked down two 3-pointers in the opening five minutes and also made an early steal, then hit another 3 with 4:26 left that put Stanford ahead by 13. She finished with 13 points, four rebounds and three assists.
On Saturday, Nneka Ogwumike almost single-handedly carried the load, scoring 39 points in a 76-60 regional semifinal win over South Carolina. Her total Monday gave Ogwumike 787 points, tying Candice Wiggins' single-season scoring record set in 2007-08 so Ogwumike will surely top that mark with at least one more game.
Gray, with another 50 or so family and friends cheering the guard who grew up about 75 miles north in Stockton, converted a three-point play with 10:46 remaining to pull Duke within 52-44, but the Cardinal answered yet again. Toni Kokenis rolled in a 3 on the other end.
The Blue Devils switched to a zone in the second half after that same move worked so well in a 74-47 rout of St. John's, but Orrange and Kokenis successfully drove and dished and they also handled Duke's trap press. Kokenis had eight of Stanford's 21 assists.
Elizabeth Williams, Duke's star 6-3 freshman playing with a stress fracture in her lower right leg, quickly scored to make it 48-39. She scored 12 points while playing much of the game in foul trouble.
Stanford got a scare with 6:51 left in the first half when Nneka Ogwumike scored on a drive to make it 30-16 and then turned into Kathleen Scheer's right elbow. She briefly went down and took a seat for all of 1:23.
Chiney Ogwumike is playing on a sprained right knee and wearing a bulky brace. Whatever it takes at this stage, with the stakes so high.
"We would love to hoist that trophy up a mile high,'' Chiney Ogwumike said. "Coach is like, 'anything's possible, you never know, don't count us out.'''