This game features two teams making return trips to the Final Four, but under distinctly different circumstances. Stanford is back for a third consecutive year with essentially the same team that went to St. Louis in 2009. The main difference is that Jayne Appel is perhaps slightly less of a focal point, while sophomore Nnemkadi Ogwumike is much more.
Otherwise, things in Stanford-land are pretty much the same. The Cardinal, despite Xavier's best efforts, still haven't lost to anyone other than UConn since Jan. 18, 2009 (California Bears). Oklahoma is back, too, and if tournament results were taken into consideration, Sherri Coale would have to be right there for one of the coach of the year honors. The Paris twins graduated and Whitney Hand got hurt, but the Sooners transformed from low post-oriented to a slashing, dribble-drive, guard-dominated team. The end result is the same: success.
If your first experience watching Stanford was Monday's 55-53 escape against Xavier, then hearing the Cardinal called offensively efficient would seem misplaced or even crazy. Yet that's exactly what Stanford is. The Cardinal know spacing, share the ball, get good shots, have three players (Appel, Ogwumike, Kayla Pedersen) who can be devastating in the post, two players (Jeanette Pohlen and Rosalyn Gold-Onwude) who know how to get them the ball, and two players (Pohlen and Pedersen) who can shoot from the outside. The regional final was an aberration. This is the same team, and only team, that frustrated UConn all season, albeit for a mere 20 minutes.
Although very good, Oklahoma is by no means the perfect basketball outfit. The Sooners are more resilient than anything. They lost Big 12 Freshman of the Year Whitney Hand in November to a torn ACL. Left with essentially just eight players, Oklahoma still finished second in the nation's toughest conference. While the other three Final Four combatants had at least one comfortable win on their way to San Antonio, the Sooners slugged their way here. Sure, they beat Kentucky by 20 in the regional final, but that one began with a 15-3 Wildcats lead. No team overcame more to get to the Final Four.
Danielle Robinson versus Gold-Onwude. Perhaps the quickest, most aggressive guard in the country versus one of its best perimeter defenders. Robinson's ability to turn the corner and draw extra defenders is what makes the Oklahoma offense go. Without her penetration -- or at least the opponent's fear of it -- the Sooners will struggle to score. Gold-Onwude's ability to stay in front of Robinson might be the focal point on which the game swings.
At this time last year, a debate existed about who was the better post player: Jayne Appel or Tina Charles. That debate doesn't exist anymore. Charles' next-level-rising and Appel's injuries make the choice an easy one, but Appel is still an All-American and still a potential low-post force that Oklahoma might have some problems dealing with.
Abi Olajuwon is vastly improved and has been more productive in the tournament than during much of the regular season, and Amanda Thompson has become a rebounding machine -- the Sooners' Dennis Rodman -- and solid scorer.
But neither has the talent of Ogwumike, herself an All-American who, with possible apologies to Robinson, could be the best player on the floor. Thompson will be in a battle all night and will likely remain productive, but Olajuwon might have trouble getting her shot off against Stanford's size, which is just as tall and more mobile.
Flip the switch in the backcourt, where not only are Robinson and Nyeshia Stevenson very good; they are also probably as hot as any two players can be (again with the stipulation that Tina Charles and Maya Moore aren't included). Stevenson -- thanks in large part to that game-deciding 3-pointer against Notre Dame in the regional semifinals and then 31 points against Kentucky -- has probably never been more confident. Robinson makes Oklahoma go. She is the single most important player in this Final Four.
Pohlen, Gold-Onwude, and JJ Hones won't dazzle anyone the way Robinson and Stevenson have already done on numerous occasions in this tournament (unless we count Pohlen's end-to-end, beat-the-clock layup to beat Xavier), but they maximize their talents and Stanford's system. The Cardinal are second in the nation in assist/turnover ratio and seventh in assists per game (UConn is first in both) for a reason. Despite Pohlen's transformation into sometimes point guard, she remains a dangerous 3-point shooter whose range is deep enough to loosen any defense and keep the passing lanes to the post clear.
Kayla Pedersen. The 6-foot-4 junior didn't get a mention in either the frontcourt or backcourt discussion because she's neither, or maybe both. Pedersen's versatility sets her apart. Oklahoma has no answer for the totality of her game -- shooting from the perimeter, posting up, helping out with the press, rebounding.
Probably the most skilled Cardinal player, Pedersen nearly averaged a double-double during the regular season and registered one against Xavier when she was Stanford's leading scorer. She also hit the shot to tie the score of the regional final at 53. If Pohlen's layup missed, the game would have headed to overtime. But had Pedersen's shot missed, Stanford's season is probably over.
Stanford. After surviving Xavier, the Cardinal have a second chance. This group is experienced and savvy. Oklahoma does not have what Xavier did that caused Stanford trouble. There are no versatile 6-4 and 6-5 players on the Sooners' roster. Those belong to Stanford in this meeting, and that will be the difference.
Charlie Creme can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.