FRESNO, Calif. – Dawn Staley tried having her South Carolina team defend Nnemkadi Ogwumike every which way — from fronting the Stanford star, to double-teaming her, playing her straight up and pushing her out to the perimeter.
Nothing worked. No doubt, this was Nneka's night.
Ogwumike had 39 points and 10 rebounds, and top-seeded Stanford moved one win away from a fifth straight Final Four with a 76-60 victory over the No. 5 seed Gamecocks on Saturday night to reach the Fresno Regional final.
Now, Duke is all that stands in the way for Stanford to get to Denver.
Ogwumike shot 14 for 22 and made 11 of 12 free throws, and Toni Kokenis added 12 points and seven boards as the Cardinal (34-1) ran their school-record winning streak to 31 games with a hard-fought victory.
"I don't want any game to be my last, except for next weekend," she said. I play for my teammates. I play for my coaches. It's been one crazy journey. To be out there and know how bad teams want to beat us, that's motivation enough."
Markeshia Grant scored 14 points and made four 3-pointers and La'Keisha Sutton had 18 for scrappy South Carolina (25-10), which hung tough in its first regional semifinals since 2002 despite a significant height disadvantage.
Stanford will play Monday night against the second-seeded Blue Devils, who beat St. John's 74-47 in Saturday's first game at the Save Mart Center. The Cardinal have a large contingent of fans who made the three-hour drive from the Bay Area.
"Nneka just would not be denied," Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said.
The Hall of Fame coach topped her former U.S. Olympic star, Staley. The two captured a gold medal together in the 1996 Atlanta Games, with VanDerveer taking a year off from Stanford to coach the Americans.
But it wasn't as easy as Stanford usually has it — South Carolina's guards regularly answered on the offensive end after baskets by Stanford. The Cardinal received their biggest push since a 74-71 overtime victory over rival California at home in Maples Pavilion on Jan. 28.
"I thought we played as well as we could play considering who we were playing and the type of night Nneka Ogwumike said," Staley said. "My hat goes off to our players who fought so hard and gave all they had."
Nneka Ogwumike took over down the stretch, even playing with three fouls for the final 17:20.
She scored on a leaping layup off a reverse pivot with 9:23 left to put her team up 56-48. She hit one free throw with 8:54 to play, then drew a charge on Ashley Bruner moments later before scoring over Bruner for an 11-point lead of 59-48. Staley quickly called timeout.
South Carolina tried to mix it up defensively against Ogwumike to get her out of sync.
"Looking at the stat sheet it doesn't look like anything worked," Staley said. "She had a tremendous night. We made her work for every 39 of her points. When someone has it going on like that there's not much you can do but give her different looks."
Kokenis had a steal in the backcourt and drove the full length of the floor for a three-point play with 5:10 remaining to make it 68-54 and cap a 9-0 Stanford run.
Joslyn Tinkle banked in a 3-pointer as the buzzer sounded to end the first half with Stanford leading 36-30 despite getting points from only four players. Nneka Ogwumike shot 7 for 12, while the rest of the team went 7 of 20.
The Cardinal got a couple of scares with Chiney Ogwumike going down twice. She hit the ground awkwardly on her braced right knee on a first-half rebound attempt. She was undercut by South Carolina's Courtney Newton, but the sophomore stayed in the game after being helped up by her big sister.
With 15:11 remaining, she drove the lane and was bumped by Ebony Wilson. She lay on the ground in pain, grabbing to stretch her troublesome right knee while holding her sister's hand. Chiney Ogwumike sat down and iced the knee before returning less than a minute later.
"They were relentless inside. They outrebounded us, which isn't very common. It's something we'll have to watch tape about," Nneka Ogwumike said. "I knew in my heart we were going to win. I could see it in our eyes."
The talented Ogwumike sister tandem combined to score their team's first 10 points, and the Cardinal led by as many as 10 in the first half.
South Carolina advanced to the NCAA's round of 16 for the third time in program history and first under fourth-year coach Staley. And this group looked drastically different from the Gamecocks team that took a 70-32 whipping on Stanford's home floor in Maples Pavilion on Nov. 26, 2010. That day, Staley asked VanDerveer to spend a few minutes with the South Carolina players in the locker room after the Hall of Famer earned career victory No. 797.
The Gamecocks beat six ranked opponents this season but couldn't pull off the upset this time.
"I think we were a resilient group just coming in four years ago from our 10-18 season to the Sweet Sixteen," Sutton said. "I definitely feel this is something special at the University of South Carolina. I definitely think we'll be back every year from now on."
VanDerveer eliminated Staley from the NCAA tournament again. The Cardinal beat Staley during her college career at Virginia in the NCAA semifinals in both 1990 and '92, and Stanford went on to win it all both times. But VanDerveer's teams haven't captured a title since '92.
Likely WNBA No. 1 pick Nneka Ogwumike hopes to do her part to change that.
"Whoever has the No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft, they're going to get a nice solid player who's going to help them right away," Staley said.