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Star forwards step up as stakes rise

SAN ANTONIO — When Connecticut and Stanford vie for the NCAA women's basketball title tonight, a highly anticipated matchup between each team's top player figures to be even more captivating in light of virtuoso performances in the national semifinals.

For Huskies junior forward Maya Moore, playing at that level in the sport's showcase event is nothing new. For Cardinal sophomore forward Nnemkadi Ogwumike, it could be the first of many such feats.

Moore had 34 points in Connecticut's 70-50 victory over Baylor on Sunday in the Final Four and was at her best during a decisive 16-4 run in the second half after the Bears drew within three with 14:55 to play.

Not to be outdone, Ogwumike scored a career-high 38, including seven in a row to close the game, in Stanford's 73-66 win against Oklahoma.

"Nneka had a great game (Sunday) night, and she is really stepping up for us," Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said. "Maya Moore is just, she's a tough guard for anyone in that she's so big, so strong. … She's the best player in the college game, and she's better than a lot of the professionals, too."

Moore, who won multiple player of the year awards last season, has averaged 24.2 points during this year's NCAA Tournament for the top-ranked Huskies (38-0).

When Connecticut's lead dwindled to 41-38 on Sunday, Moore had six points, two rebounds, an assist and a steal over two minutes as the Huskies reclaimed a comfortable margin. In a subsequent stretch, Moore scored five in a row, and Connecticut led by 20 with 1:37 to play.

"We ran a couple of things specifically for her after they got it to four or five or three, whatever it was," Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma said. "She made a couple of big buckets, and the kids on the bench were yelling, 'Great read, Maya.' "

Connecticut has trailed in the second half only twice this season. The first was when it fell behind visiting Stanford 44-42 shortly after intermission on Dec. 23 before rallying for an 80-68 triumph.

That game also served notice to the Huskies that Ogwumike was a player not to be regarded lightly. She scored a team-high 20 on 8-of-10 shooting and added six rebounds and a steal.

"She's an outstanding player," Moore said of Ogwumike, who is averaging 21.4 points and 12.2 rebounds in the tournament. "She works extremely hard. She has, I think, developed faster than any sophomore in the country, and she has a lot of confidence right now."

It's easy to see why, considering she outscored Oklahoma's starting frontcourt by herself and lifted her game when circumstances were the most dire. During the final 51 seconds, Ogwumike was the only player on Stanford (36-1) to score.

After leaving briefly after a hard foul, Ogwumike re-entered and made an uncontested layup with 15 seconds to play. She put the finishing touches on the victory with two free throws.

"Tara tells me all the time that I can get better," Ogwumike said. "As good as it may seem, there's still room for improvement. I know I can get better and still think I can. Everyone's behind me."

Star forwards step up as stakes rise 04/06/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 6, 2010 12:11am]

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