January 30, 2010

Slow start, fast finish against Arizona State

The Arizona State Sun Devils managed to do something on Jan. 28 that no other team, not even UConn, had been able to do all season: It led the Stanford women’s basketball team at the half, 29-25. ASU’s lead had been even greater than that earlier in the half, but Stanford began inching upward.

Just slightly more than three minutes into the second half, forward Kayla Pedersen hit the basket that put Stanford ahead 32-30, and there was no looking back. The final score was 71-48. Kayla also led all scoring with 23 points, to go with seven rebounds, but it was a solid team effort that put Stanford in control.

The game illustrated another Cardinal trait: When one usually high-scoring player gets in trouble, others take over. Such was the case this time when forward Nneka Ogwumike had to spend 17 minutes on the bench because of fouls, thus limiting her scoring to 8 points to go with seven rebounds, an assist and two steals. Nneka had scored 30 points and snared a school record 23 rebounds in Stanford’s 100-80 defeat of Oregon there on Jan. 23.

With Nneka sidelined for so long against ASU, her fellow bigs, Kayla and center Jayne Appel, helped to pick up the slack. Jayne, who has steadily improved as her surgically repaired knee has healed, had a double-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds plus a block and a steal.

Guard Rosalyn Gold-Onwude, who has shown up big in recent games, rose to the occasion again with a career-high 19 points (including three 3-pointers), three rebounds and an assist. And as has been her trademark throughout the season, she dominated defensively. Head coach Tara VanDerveer said in the post-game press conference that not only is Ros the best defensive player in the Pac-10, she’s possibly the best defensive player in the nation.

“Our defense really amped it up in the second half,” associate head coach Amy Tucker told the Fast Break Club after the game. That was good because, “We didn’t match their physicality or their aggressiveness” in the first half.

“It was interesting,” Tara said in an understatement. “I’m really proud of how our team stayed together.”

Michelle Smith, who covered women’s basketball for the San Francisco Chronicle, talked about the challenges she has faced in the nine months since losing her job in one of a series of cutbacks at the paper. “Every day is something new,” she told the FBC. In creating her Internet site, Left Coast Hoops, she’s had to learn new skills, such as how to write an ad contract.

After the college basketball season ends this spring, she might cover the WNBA. “I’ll figure it out,” she said. She also writes for Fan House, an AOL feature.

As for this year’s Stanford team, it has, “a good vibe. This is a pretty poised team.” She expects it to go to the Final Four along with UConn and Tennessee, but she couldn’t venture a guess on who will fill the fourth slot.

As a side note, she mentioned that her 16-year-old daughter, Annie, is one of the Irish dancers who are popular halftime entertainers at Stanford games. She’s one of the taller ones in a lime green dress, Michelle said.

January 18, 2010

Substandard Stanford win over Washington

The Stanford women’s basketball team’s 66-51 defeat of Washington at home on Jan. 16 left fans unsettled and the coaches scratching their heads over what head coach Tara VanDerveer termed lackadaisical play.

On paper, it should have been an easy win. However, Tara was able to use only seven players because the Cardinal let a 35-21 advantage in the first half slip to only a 31-30 edge in the second. That was enough to win, but not enough to satisfy Stanford fans.

With a wider lead, guard Hannah Donaghe could have played for the first time since knee surgery last winter, associate head coach Amy Tucker told the Fast Break Club after the game. She was dressed for the Washington State game for the first time and has been practicing with the team.

In Stanford’s defense, the team was playing without starting guard Jeanette Pohlen, who aggravated her sprained ankle in the Washington State win two days earlier, and best off-the-bench guard, JJ Hones, who’s resting her swollen knee. Lindy La Rocque replaced Jeanette as a starter, joining the other starting guard, Rosalyn Gold-Onwude. Melanie Murphy then became the off-the-bench guard, but she has a sore knee, too, and hasn’t been practicing.

With JJ and Jeanette out, others had a chance to step up, but “that didn’t happen,” Amy said. “We didn’t compete. We weren’t tough,” she said, citing “uninspired play and lack of aggressiveness.”

“It’s good you can play a game like this and win,” she said, but the team can’t play like this and expect to get to the Final Four for the third straight year. “We set the bar to our standards. … There was nothing about this game that the coaching staff can be excited about,” she said. “We have way too many turnovers,” many of them unforced, caused by such problems as poor passing and poor decisions.

“That was torture” were Tara’s first words to the Fast Break Club. Like Amy, she lamented the turnovers and lack of aggressiveness. “We were less than scintillating today.” (On the other hand, Marian Cortesi hits the highlights in Stories of the Season.)

“We set a really high standard not just for winning but how we play,” Tara said. “We are definitely not peaking early.” It’s uncertain whether JJ and Jeanette will be able to play when the Cardinal visit the Oregon teams this week, she added.

In my report on the Washington State game, I was remiss in not mentioning the impressive performance by the women’s gymnastics team at halftime.

Also, fans are wondering about the “Put a ring on it” T-shirts that were given to students that night. A student told me that the words come from a BeyoncĂ© song and refer to hopes that the WBB team will finish the season with championship rings.

January 15, 2010

Guards gain one, lose two in win over Washington State

Stanford’s guard situation remained in flux after the women’s basketball team’s 80-43 home victory over Washington State on Jan. 14. Nursing a sore knee, JJ Hones was on the sidelines from the start, along with forward Sarah Boothe, who hasn’t played all season because of a foot injury. Then Jeanette Pohlen reinjured her ankle early in the second half and missed the rest of the game. “It’s pretty swollen,” head coach Tara VanDerveer said after the game.

On the plus side, Hannah Donaghe was back in uniform for the first time since tearing an ACL in practice nearly a year ago. She didn’t play, but it was great to see her warming up with her teammates. “Hannah’s getting close to coming back,” Tara said.

Also on the plus side, Rosalyn Gold-Onwude had another big game after playing a key role in the team’s close win, 65-61, at UCLA last weekend. Against WSU, Ros had 11 points – including three 3s -- seven rebounds, three assists and a steal in addition to her usual tenacious defense. “Ros is feeling a sense of urgency,” Tara said, with a maximum of only nine more games (assuming two in the first NCAA round) at Maples left for her and center Jayne Appel.

The absence of Jeanette and JJ meant more playing time for Melanie Murphy and Lindy La Rocque. Mel, whose knee has been iffy and who was wearing black sleeves on both legs, played 16 minutes and contributed two points, two rebounds and an assist. Lindy was in for 24 minutes and accounted for five points, two assists and a steal. That steal was a nifty one. She intercepted a pass in Washington’s back court, ran the ball all the way back to the Stanford arc and nailed a three. You can see it in the game highlights video. “Lindy did a nice job for us,” Tara said.

Grace Mashore came in for the last four minutes and contributed one rebound and the 3-pointer that was Stanford’s final basket. Before leaving the game, Jeanette had played 11 minutes, scored five points (including a three), grabbed one rebound and made three assists.

Because of the guard situation, “we had some interesting combinations out there,” Tara said. In addition, the Cardinal’s wide scoring and rebounding margin gave several bench players more action than usual, a valuable experience. “We want to play more people,” Tara said. It’s fun to note that yet another post player, Ashley Cimino, showed that she can hit from the outside as she tossed in a three late in the game – much to everyone’s delight. It was the first of her college career. She also had four rebounds in five minutes of play.

Sports writer Michelle Smith was to have been the post-game speaker, but she was ill and couldn’t make it. Consequently, assistant coaches Kate Paye and Bobbie Kelsey spoke for a while. Both gave quick summaries of their activities after graduating from Stanford. They had started on the Farm the same year, but Bobbie red-shirted as a freshman because she had injured her knee during her senior year in high school. Kate said that during that first year, Bobbie asked to borrow her car one weekend while the rest of the team went on the road. After the weekend, Bobbie commented that the car hadn’t driven well and made funny noises. Kate discovered that the emergency brake had been on the entire time.

Several fans groused about the announcement that ringing little bells after forward Joslyn Tinkle scores violates NCAA rules against artificial noisemakers. “Sorry about the bells. Nothing I can do about the bells,” said Eileen Roche, director of basketball operations.

Despite all the contributions mentioned already, and despite continued outstanding play by the three starting bigs – Jayne, Nneka Ogwumike and Kayla Pedersen – Tara wasn’t entirely happy with the game. “We had some slop in the first half,” the coach said, adding that “the second half got better.” She was especially unhappy with some of the passes.

Asked about whether the team is influenced by its No. 2 ranking in the nation, Tara said, “We don’t talk about it.” Rather, “we have to improve.” One way to do that is to study videos. “We do a highlight film after every game,” she said. Because of the way it’s programmed, Tara or anyone else can zero in on a player whenever she’s in the game. There’s no need to fast-forward. “Video is a great tool.”

Although some fans have been concerned that Jayne’s point production isn’t as high as it was last season, Tara was quick to point out that “Jayne is all about our team.” She missed six months for knee surgery after last season, but “she’s doing well” and working hard. “She gets clobbered a lot” under the basket,” but she’s an unselfish player who willingly passes the ball to a teammate. “I love coaching her,” Tara said.

The highlights video on the FBC site also shows another facet of Jayne’s game – setting screens, such as the ones that helped Ros make 3-pointers. That’s something that doesn’t show up on the stat sheet. The stat sheet does show that Jayne played 28 minutes, scored 14 points, snared nine rebounds, blocked six shots, and had four assists and four steals. Moreover, “Jayne is moving back (from the basket to score). She’ll be hitting a three before she graduates,” Tara said.

We’ll look forward to that.

January 3, 2010

Fans worry after victory over Cal

We fans of Stanford women’s basketball are a spoiled lot. The team has been ranked #2 in the nation since the start of the season, the record is 10-1, and the only loss was to #1 UConn – by just 12 points, UConn’s lowest margin of victory.

Now the Cardinal has just defeated Cal by 21 points, 79-58, at home on Jan. 2 – and we’re worried. We want perfection, and there were some troubling aspects to the game. This was especially true in the first half, when the Cardinal shot 30.8 percent, missing too many easy baskets.

Some of those misses were by star center Jayne Appel, but she made up for it in the second half, ending the game with 13 points, six rebounds, four assists and three blocks.

“I don’t know that we’ve seen the real Jayne yet,” associate head coach Amy Tucker told the Fast Break Club after the game. “Her knee (on which she had surgery after last season) has been sore the past two days, but traditionally she finishes well,” she said. “We know Jayne can play better.” It’s a matter of getting her knee better.

Perhaps more troubling is that neither of the starting guards, Jeanette Pohlen and Rosalyn Gold-Onwude, scored. However, Jeanette tweaked her ankle in the second half and had to go to the locker room for taping before returning to action. Ros, who had four rebounds, two steals and an assist, helped keep Cal’s best player, senior Alexis Gray-Lawson, under control, limiting her to 9 points.

On the brighter side, guard JJ Hones, who has had knee trouble, came off the bench again and contributed 5 points, five assists and a steal. Freshman forward Joslyn Tinkle continued to make progress, adding 7 points and three rebounds in just 14 minutes. (Some fans have taken to ringing small bells when she scores.)

Guard Melanie Murphy, who also has had injury trouble, came in to score 11 points along with two rebounds and an assist. She initiated the game’s most exciting fast-break moment, a no-look pass to forward Nneka Ogwumike, who promptly made the basket. “I like how Mel came in,” head coach Tara VanDerveer told the FBC.

Nneka continued to play in stellar fashion with 24 points, 16 rebounds, three assists, two blocks and a steal. Right behind her, forward Kayla Pedersen recorded 16 points, 10 rebounds and a steal.

Also on the bright side, the team made 80 percent of its free throws (the goal is 75 percent, Tara said) and outrebounded Cal 49-41. Furthermore, 13 players were suited up, and 13 got into the game. We haven’t seen that for a while. “I’m really happy to get more people in,” Tara said. They keep each other accountable, she said. Only guard Hannah Donaghe (knee) and center Sarah Boothe (foot) weren’t in uniform, but they’re both practicing.

Speaking to the FBC, Hannah said, “My knee is doing well. I scrimmaged the last two days in practice.” She was pretending to be Cal guard Layshia Clarendon, a freshman who drew raves from TV announcers Jim Watson and Mary Murphy during the game.

“Be her all the time,” assistant coach Bobbie Kelsey said to Hannah. “Don’t be sweet Hannah.” Speaking from her own experience, Bobbie said that returning from a knee injury is almost as much psychological as it is physical. The plan is for Hannah to be eased into action “sooner than later.”

Answering fans' questions, Hannah, a junior, said she’s majoring in earth systems, which she described as a mix of environmental science, geology and other disciplines. Because she’s from Atascadero, she wanted to stay in California for college. She looked at UC Davis, where her older sister plays basketball, and at UCLA, but “nothing could compare with Stanford” for academics and basketball, she said.

Talking about the game, Tara said, “We just missed some easy shots.” At one point, the Cardinal missed 14 in a row, but “they don’t get down on themselves.”

Something that the team has been working on is taking charges, meaning an opposing player charges into a Cardinal defender and is called for a foul. “We have a charge club,” Tara said.

Looking back at the UConn game, Tara said, “Playing there was a great experience for our team. Our team was very poised,” but made some defensive mistakes such as not boxing out well. “It was a Final Four atmosphere…. We’re very disappointed that we didn’t play better. … We have to improve.”

Now that Pac-10 play has started, “We are the big target,” she said. “Our team has to come out and be more aggressive” when it journeys to Los Angeles to play UCLA and USC next weekend.

Keeping the team healthy is a top priority. For example, “we train on bikes” instead of running, Tara said. The players also watch a lot of video of themselves. “Our players are very committed.”

They didn’t get much of a holiday break. They played at UConn on Dec. 23 and had to be back on campus Dec. 27. However, they got into the holiday spirit of sharing. Instead of having a gift exchange among themselves, they contributed some of their meal allowance to help a needy family have the Christmas it might not otherwise have had, Tara said.

After returning from the 68-46 win at Fresno on Dec. 30, the team celebrated New Year’s Eve with a party at the home of Eileen Roche, director of basketball operations.