March 31, 2010

Storybook ending for Stanford

The Stanford women’s basketball team is on its way to the Final Four in San Antonio after pulling off a nearly improbable 55-53 win over Xavier on March 29 at Sacramento’s Arco Arena.

Unlike most of the other teams that Stanford has defeated in its 35-1 season, Xavier kept the score close most of the game, and its taller post players made life difficult for the Stanford threesome of center Jayne Appel and forwards Kayla Pedersen and Nneka Ogwumike.

Stanford led 26-24 at the half, which was far from stellar for the Cardinal. Just before the start of the second half, I told myself, “They can play better.”

It wasn’t a whole lot better in the second half, though, especially after Jayne fouled out. At that point, a fan sitting near me yelled, “Do it for Jayne.” It’s well known that the senior wants a national championship.

Then, with the scored tied 53-53 with only seconds to go, Kayla rebounded the second of two easy shots that Xavier missed and immediately called a timeout. That’s when the “schemers” (Georgia coach Andy Landers’ label for the Stanford coaches after his team’s 73-36 loss two nights earlier) called what turned out to be the perfect play.

Kayla inbounded the ball to guard Jeanette Pohlen under the Xavier basket. With only 4.4 seconds to go, Jeanette drove down the court and made the winning basket just in time. If she hadn’t made it, the game would have gone into overtime. Instead, jubilation broke out on Stanford’s half of the court, and Jeanette was swamped by her joyous teammates.

After the awards ceremony and the traditional net-cutting, the players rushed over to the band, cheerleaders, Dollies and Tree and grabbed the cheerleaders’ pompons to salute and celebrate with their most loyal student supporters.

As with the Georgia game, two booster buses traveled to Sacramento for this game. My seatmate this time was Jimmy Viglizzo, better known as Jimmy V, owner of the popular sports cafe where the Stanford women and other teams have their training table.

He said that he had made good on his promise to serve the players salmon filet and filet mignon if they went to the Sweet 16. After that meal, he promised them steak and lobster if they made it to the Final Four. They should be eating mighty well one day this week after he has the fresh lobster tails flown from Australia.

Along with wine, beer and water supplied by Stanford, people on our bus could enjoy wine that the generous Jimmy V shared.

On the way there, fans on our bus could watch a video about how the legendary basketball film “Hoosiers” was made. This was followed by a grainy black and white film of the true-life game that inspired the film. In 1954, the team from tiny Milan High School in Indiana scored a miraculous upset over longtime hoops powerhouse Muncie Central for the state championship. That game is regarded as one of the best ever in my native Hoosier State, where I like to say that basketball is the state religion.

Stanford’s defeat of Xavier is far from that kind of legend, but Jeanette’s final drive for the winning basket certainly will go down as one of the all-time great moments in Cardinal basketball history. As my bus was returning to Stanford, I heard one fan yell, “Pohlen for governor.” Now there’s a thought.

San Antonio, here we come.

March 28, 2010

Elite performance in Sacramento

Although the Stanford players insist it wasn’t easy, they made it look that way as the team marched into the Elite Eight via a 73-36 victory over 5-seeded Georgia in the first round of the NCAA women’s basketball regional at Arco Arena in Sacramento on March 27.

The crowd was dominated by Stanford fans, more than 100 of whom had arrived on two booster buses. During the long drive, these fans could enjoy wine, beer or water provided by Stanford and – on my double-decker coach – served by Gayle Mulvey, athletic department receptionist. Some fans also brought snacks to sustain themselves before the buses arrived at the pre-game social.

There they found a large, red-clad crowd enjoying themselves at umbrella-shaded tables on the front patio of Bella Bru Cafe, which served a tasty buffet.

The informal event was capped off by a surprise appearance by the band, Dollies, cheerleaders and Tree. They entertained the fans for 10 minutes before playing “It’s All Right” and running back to their own bus. Their antics drew the attention of the mall’s patrons. Even firefighters in a fire engine slowly driving through the parking lot seemed fascinated.

Then it was back into the buses to head to the arena, pick up tickets and go inside for what turned out to be an entertaining game if your favorite color is cardinal red.

After a slow start, Stanford dominated on both sides of the ball. The score at the half was 37-15. By the time the score hit 66-30 with 6:16 left, the starters were on the bench. When the game was over, all 14 uniformed players had seen action.

The only scary moment came near the end when forward Michelle Harrison crumpled onto the floor under the Georgia basket. After a few minutes, she was able to walk to the bench. It was later reported that she had been accidentally elbowed in the face and that the injury wasn’t serious.

The Georgia band was mostly brass, and its favorite, oft-played song was “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” mostly the chorus part – “Glory, glory, hallelujah.” The final strains at the end of the game, however, sounded more like a dirge than a marching song.

Speaking of songs, news that Baylor had knocked off Tennessee earlier in the day meant not only that a No. 1 seed had been upset, but that we won’t have to hear endless repetitions of “Good Old Rocky Top” if Stanford makes it to the Final Four.

The only obstacle between Sacramento and San Antonio now is Xavier, which knocked off Gonzaga 74-56 in the second game. Most Stanford fans seemed to be rooting for the scrappy Zags, but Xavier’s size was just too much.

During the first half of that game, Stanford players joined family and friends, who gave them big hugs, in the section behind what had been the Stanford bench. Their arrival also was cheered by fans, as was their departure at the half. In the meantime, associate head coach Amy Tucker and assistant coaches Kate Paye and Bobbie Kelsey sat at tables on the opposite side of the court scouting the game. Head coach Tara VanDerveer was in the stands right behind them.

Fans applauded the Gonzaga cheerleaders’ intricate formations, but people sitting near me on the homeward bus pondered the significance of Xavier’s mascot, especially since the team’s nickname is the Musketeers. Some likened it to a blue blob, while others said it was a blue amoeba.

One fan turned to her Blackberry and unearthed amusing opinions about the mascot. The consensus name seemed to be the Blue Blob, but the Web search showed that the mascot sometimes appears as the Red Blob, and sometimes it’s a swashbuckling d’Artagnan from “The Three Musketeers.” Which one shows up for the Stanford-Xavier game March 29 may or may not be a moot point.

The buses got back to campus shortly before 1 a.m. – a long day for the sleepy but happy fans.

One other musical item of interest – It probably was pure coincidence, but as my bus crossed over the Carquinez Bridge on the way to the game, the sound system quietly played ABBA’s “Dancing Queen,” the same tune heard during the Cardinal’s open practice preceding the first two rounds of the tournament in Maples Pavilion. Now we can hope that the team keeps dancing all the way to San Antonio.

March 23, 2010

Fantastic farewell to Maples

As the elder stateswoman of the Stanford women’s basketball team, Rosalyn Gold-Onwude has led her teammates all season as they made their initial entrance. On March 22, the fifth-year senior guard expanded that role to score a team-high and career-high 26 points in the Cardinal’s 96-67 defeat of Iowa in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

Not only that, Ros opened the scoring with a 3-pointer, then went on to electrify the crowd by scoring five more in succession, leading the Cardinal to a 61-34 advantage at the half. She went on to record one more 3 plus two other baskets and a free throw as well as one rebound, five assists, one block and one steal in 33 minutes. When she went to the bench for the last time with about six minutes to go in the game, the near-capacity crowd gave her a roaring ovation to go with a hug from head coach Tara VanDerveer.

Senior center Jayne Appel also played her last Maples game and was loudly cheered after scoring 16 points to go with seven rebounds, three assists and two blocks. The other three starters also scored in double figures – forward Nneka Ogwumike with 23 points, nine rebounds, seven assists and one block; forward Kayla Pedersen with 11 points, six rebounds and two assists; and guard Jeanette Pohlen with 11 points, four rebounds, seven assists and two steals.

In addition to Ros’s seven 3’s, Jeanette contributed three and Kayla had one – a total of 11 3-pointers -- in an all-around dominating game that saw all 14 uniformed players in action.

Thus the team enjoyed its second straight season -- 46 home games – with nary a loss at Maples. That means that the four sophomores and two freshmen have never experienced a home loss in their college careers.

Stanford had advanced to this game by defeating UC Riverside 79-47 in the first-round game March 20. In that game, Nneka led Cardinal scoring with 19 points, followed by Jeanette with 16, Kayla with 15, Jayne with 7 and Ros with 5. The team’s 3-pointers came from Jeanette with four, Ros with one and guard Lindy La Rocque with one. Once again, everyone had a chance to play.

With its two wins at Maples, Stanford advances to the Sweet 16 in the Sacramento regional, playing No. 5 seed Georgia on Saturday, March 27, and – assuming a Cardinal victory – the winner of the game between No. 7 seed Gonzaga and No. 3 seed Xavier on Monday, March 29. Booster buses are scheduled for both games. See details elsewhere on this site.

March 20, 2010

Dancing queens

Maples Pavilion is ready to go, and so, apparently, is the Stanford women’s basketball team as the first round of the NCAA tournament begins today. Stanford, the second #1 seed overall, plays host to #16 seeded UC Riverside at about 7:30 p.m.

A handful of fans got to see the team prepare for its meeting during a one-hour open practice March 19. The overall impression was one of a relaxed yet energetic, enthusiastic, well disciplined team.

Clapping as they entered the gym, the players almost immediately launched into passing drills, encouraging each other the whole time. Even though everyone was focused and businesslike, there still was much smiling and laughing during the one-hour practice. This is a team that clearly enjoys playing together and cares about each other.

Anyone looking for offensive or defensive strategies would be disappointed. Head coach Tara VanDerveer wasn’t about to tip her hand. Instead she and her coaching colleagues had the players working on basic skills – free throws, layups, 3-pointers, shorter-range shots, rebounds, passing and fast breaks – no scrimmages.

Sometimes all 15 players practiced together. Other times, they split into groups with the 1’s, 2’s and 3’s at one end of the court and the 4’s and 5’s at the other.

It was good to see sophomore center Sarah Boothe in action. She hasn’t played since foot surgery last year, but she has been able to practice. She seemed to run the floor well and to hit her shots.

Besides the fans, observers included TV commentator Mary Murphy and other media types. Wayne Tinkle, father of freshman forward Joslyn Tinkle, watched for a while with some other men in Montana T-shirts. His University of Montana team had lost a close game in the first round of the men’s tournament at HP Pavilion in San Jose the night before.

The practice was accompanied by music chosen by Tara. The only song that was familiar to these ears came near the end -- ABBA’s “Dancing Queen,” a fitting choice as the Cardinal get ready for the big dance.

March 17, 2010

Making history

The Stanford women’s basketball team powered its way through the Pac-10 tournament at the Galen Center in Los Angeles, defeating Arizona 72-52 on March 12 and Cal 64-44 on March 13 before toppling UCLA 70-46 on March 14 to take home the championship trophy. Thus the Cardinal became the first team to go undefeated during the Pac-10 season and then win the conference tournament.

Now the players have their eyes on an even bigger prize, the national championship. Just four more wins will send the team to the Final Four in San Antonio. The march starts at about 7:30 p.m. March 20 when No. 1-seeded Stanford faces UC Riverside at home in Maples Pavilion. Assuming a Stanford win, the next opponent would be either Rutgers or Iowa on March 22 at home Winning that game would mean the Sweet 16 and a bus ride to presumably two more games in the regional at Sacramento’s Arco Arena the following weekend, March 27 and 29.

Besides bringing home the Pac-10 trophy and net as a team, Stanford collected individual honors. Forward Nneka Ogwumike was named the tournament’s most outstanding player. Center Jayne Appel and forward Kayla Pedersen were named to the all-tournament team. Just before the Cal game, Jayne was honored as the Toyo Tires Pac-10 Women’s Basketball Scholar-Athlete of the Year. Toyo Tires also donated $1,000 to the Stanford women’s basketball scholarship fund in Jayne’s name, according to a Pac-10 press release.

The tournament actually began March 11, when the four bottom seeds played. Between those two games, Jayne and Nneka joined two players from each of the other nine teams to sign autographs for young fans. In the meantime, Stanford videographer Sarah Boruta worked on her laptop as she sat on the floor behind the video cameras in the stands, presumably preparing a scouting video of Arizona’s 2-point victory over Washington State. Sarah spent most of the tournament in that spot.

Friday’s festivities began with a sendoff from the Marriott Hotel downtown, where all of the teams were staying. Only a few fans were there, including Nneka’s father, Peter, who took pictures with his camera phone as the band, cheerleaders, Dollies and Tree performed.

Because of a sprained ankle, Jayne didn’t start in the game against Arizona. Freshman Joslyn Tinkle got the nod instead. Jayne got into the game during the second half and played for about 10 minutes, contributing 7 points, three rebounds and a block.

Stanford was a perfect 9 for 9 from the free-throw line during the first half even though some Arizona fans, presumably students, ran back and forth in the stands behind the basket while Stanford players were at the line. Obviously their strategy didn’t work. In response, a few Stanford band members made some distracting motions behind the Arizona basket.

There were a few more fans at Saturday’s sendoff, and several hotel employees used their camera phones. After about a 15-minute serenade by the band, guard JJ Hones led the team off to the bus.

As she had done at the Arizona game, Jayne spent part of the warm-up time riding an exercise bike next to the Stanford bench. The Tree showed that he can do more than dance by playing drums with the band for a short time before resuming his usual persona.

Joslyn again got the start for Jayne, who came in with about 14 minutes to go in the first half. She played a total of 19 minutes and scored another 7 points to go with two rebounds, two assists, a block and two steals.

All 14 dressed players (center Sarah Boothe hasn’t played all season after foot surgery) got into the game. They included freshman forward Mikaela Ruef, who recorded the first 3-pointer of her college career.

The Cal game was marred by a scary scene in the second half when Cal senior guard Alexis Gray-Lawson fell onto her back and head after trying to shoot near the basket. She lay motionless on the court for about 15 minutes before being wheeled off on a gurney, accompanied by her mother. Later, after she had been evaluated at a hospital, it was reported that she had suffered a sprained neck and would be OK.

The final sendoff on Sunday attracted a larger crowd. As the band played – as only the Stanford band can play – UCLA players and coaches had to thread their way through Stanford players and the band to reach their bus. It’s not certain what they were thinking.

The Stanford players’ reaction was readily apparent, though, as they smiled and pumped their arms during the fanfare that preceded a mini-dance to “It’s All Right” and the trek to the bus.

For all its goofy antics, the band has proven to be a loyal backer of the team, enthusiastically following it through tournament play. I marvel at these musicians’ stamina, for they seem to get almost as much exercise as the team during the course of a tournament game day, yet they’re just as energetic at the end of the game as they were at the sendoff several hours earlier. They’re also vocal rooters during the games.

Jayne started against UCLA and played 28 minutes, amassing 15 points, five rebounds, one assist and one steal. The contributions of other players have been enumerated elsewhere on this FBC site, but guard Melanie Murphy deserves additional recognition for serving as a sparkplug off the bench. She has been hampered by various injuries throughout the season, but during this tournament she played a total of 52 minutes and seemed to get better with each game. She’s a playmaker who gets the ball to open teammates and doesn’t hesitate to shoot it herself if that’s the right thing to do.

At the end of the championship celebration, as players, coaches and staff members took turns cutting off a piece of the net, head coach Tara VanDerveer broke with tradition. Instead of making the final cut to remove the net, she gave that honor to fifth-year senior guard Rosalyn Gold-Onwude, who triumphantly held the net aloft.

Now that the ticket has been punched, shall we dance?

March 8, 2010

Bus keeps going to victory in Berkeley

“Jayne drives the bus.” That’s what head coach Tara VanDerveer often says about the offensive strategy of the Stanford women’s basketball team.

Well, when a sprained right ankle kept senior center Jayne Appel from behind the wheel when Stanford visited Cal on March 6, forwards Kayla Pedersen and Nneka Ogwumike took over, driving the Cardinal to a 63-48 victory. They scored a combined 45 points – 23 from Kayla, 22 from Nneka – and led Stanford to its first unbeaten Pac-10 season since 2002. They also led the team in rebounds with 10 by Kayla and 14 by Nneka.

A bus figured into the day in another way because 50 fans took a chartered bus from Stanford to Berkeley, thus avoiding traffic and parking hassles and enjoying the camaraderie. The fun started when Marian Cortesi, who authors Stories of the Season on this Fast Break Club site, gave everyone homemade brownies as they got on the bus.

Then her husband, Dave Cortesi, who serves as the FBC’s travel chair, added to the fun by showing a video of Stanford’s memorable 98-87 victory over Maryland in the 2008 NCAA regional in Spokane, thus earning a trip to the Final Four in Tampa. That time the Stanford bus was driven by then-senior guard Candice Wiggins, who poured in 41 points, aided by 23 points from then-sophomore guard JJ Hones. Kayla, then a freshman, had three 3-pointers. Even though the sound wasn’t working, it was easy to see how well the team played.

(Not so trivial question: What team was the last to beat Connecticut and when? The answer: Stanford, 82-73, in the first game of the Final Four in Tampa.)

Another perk of taking the bus to the game was that those fans had comfortable reserved-seat tickets, a real luxury at Haas Pavilion, where most seats have no backs.

The fans’ seats were across from a section filled with people wearing red T-shirts handed out by Jayne’s parents and emblazoned with “House of Jayne.” They also received placards with a head shot of Jayne. Those people were her relatives and friends, there to honor her at her last regular-season game. We can hope to see them again in two weeks when Stanford hosts the first round of the NCAA tournament, presumably with the Cardinal as a top seed.

Since it was Cal’s Senior Day, Jayne and class of 2010 teammates JJ, guard Melanie Murphy and forward Michelle Harrison, along with fifth-year senior guard Rosalyn Gold-Onwude, were given flowers. Then Cal’s three seniors – Lauren Greif, Natasha Vital and Alexis Gray-Lawson – were escorted in by their families for the crowd’s accolades. However, Haas’ sound system was so distorted that it was difficult to hear what was said.

With Jayne at the end of the bench next to sophomore center Sarah Boothe, who hasn’t played all season following foot surgery, freshman forward Joslyn Tinkle got the first start of her college career. The tip-off was loud, with Cal fans waving the rally towels placed on most seats (mine will be put to good use at home). Cal scored the first four points, but Kayla tied the score at 6-6 about five minutes into the game, and then put her team ahead for good with another basket two minutes later.

Stanford fans had another reason to cheer just a minute later when the Stanford band and the Tree put in their first lively appearance.

The score was 26-19 at the half. Uncharacteristically, Stanford had made no 3s during that half. Joslyn supplied both of Stanford’s only 3s in the second half and wound up with eight points and nine rebounds.

Returning to Stanford, the bus riders heard a recording of the band playing “It’s All Right,” before fan Deb Gumbley announced the stats, reading from her electronic device. The bus got back to Stanford about 3:40 p.m., giving fans plenty of time to enjoy the rest of the day.

Part of my enjoyment was watching a tape of the game. Jayne was shown talking and laughing with Sarah before the tipoff. After the game, Jayne, who had injured her ankle in practice four days earlier, told commentator Mary Murphy that she believes she could have played against Cal and that she expects to play at the Pac-10 tournament in LA next weekend.

In their post-game interviews, both Nneka and Ros stressed how important Jayne is to the team and how much they wanted to win the game for her and to wind up undefeated in Pac-10 season play. They and their teammates succeeded. Now it’s on LA, where we hope to see Jayne driving the bus again.