May 2, 2010

Thanks for the memories – A look back at 2009-10, Part 2

After compiling a 28-1 regular season record with no losses at home, it was time for the Stanford women’s basketball team to gear up for championship play.

Tournament time

The Cardinal came home from the Galen Center in Los Angeles with the Pac-10 tournament championship trophy after downing Arizona 72-52 on March 12, Cal 64-44 on March 13 and UCLA 70-46 on March 14. Thus Stanford made Pac-10 history with its combination of an undefeated conference season and the tournament championship.

In addition to the trophy, the team brought home individual honors. Sophomore forward Nneka Ogwumike was named the tournament’s most outstanding player. Senior center Jayne Appel and junior 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.

Because of a sprained ankle, Jayne didn’t start against Arizona or Cal, so freshman forward Joslyn Tinkle got the nod. However, Jayne played in both games and contributed her share of points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals. All 14 dressed players (sophomore center Sarah Boothe did not play all season after foot surgery) got into action against Cal. They included freshman forward Mikaela Ruef, who recorded the first 3-pointer of her college career.

Jayne did start in the championship game and amassed 15 points, five rebounds, one assist and one steal. As the victorious Stanford players and staff began cutting down the nets, head coach Tara VanDerveer broke with tradition. Instead of making the final cut to remove the net herself, she handed the scissors to fifth-year Rosalyn Gold-Onwude, who triumphantly held the net aloft.

Fans, the band, cheerleaders, Dollies and Tree gave the team a sendoff from their hotel for all three games. During the sendoff for the final game, UCLA players and coaches had to thread their way through the enthusiastic crowd to reach their bus.

The big dance

By virtue of winning the Pac-10 tournament, Stanford got an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. Its overall record and strength of schedule resulted in the second No. 1 seed overall. The Cardinal also hosted the first and second rounds. Before playing, they showcased their skills during a one-hour open practice March 19.

Stanford took care of UC Riverside 79-47 in the first-round game March 20. All 14 uniformed players saw action.

In the second-round game against Iowa on March 22, Ros played her final game at Maples in memorable fashion. She scored a team-high and career-high 26 points in the 96-67 victory. Not only that, she opened the scoring with a 3-pointer, then scored five more in succession. She went on to record one more 3 plus two other baskets and a free throw to go with one rebound, five assists, one block and one steal in 33 minutes. When she went to the bench for the last time, the crowd gave a roaring ovation to go with a hug from Tara.

The other four starters also scored in double figures – Jayne in her last Maples game with 16, Nneka with 23, and Kayla and junior guard Jeanette Pohlen with 11 each. Once again, everyone got to play. Thus the team completed its second consecutive undefeated season at Maples – 46 home games.

Off to the Sweet and the Elite

Two busloads of fans joined others wearing Cardinal red as Stanford advanced to the regional – aka the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight – at Arco Arena in Sacramento.

Preceding the first game on March 27, fans gathered at Bella Bru Cafe for a buffet on the outdoor patio. They then proceeded to the nearby arena, where their team tended to business, defeating 5-seeded Georgia 73-36. The starters were all on the bench with 6:16 to go and their team ahead by 36. Again, all 14 dressed players got onto the court.

Two more busloads of fans went to the Xavier game on March 29, but they weren’t nearly as relaxed. Stanford led 26-24 at the half, in part because Xavier’s taller post players made life difficult for Jayne, Kayla and Nneka. After Jayne fouled out in the second half, a fan yelled, “Do it for Jayne,” referring to the senior’s oft-stated wish for a national championship.

Then came the storybook finish – one that will go down as one of the greatest plays in the history of Stanford women’s basketball. With just seconds to go and the score tied 53-53, a Xavier player missed two easy layups. Kayla rebounded the second one and immediately called a time out. In the huddle, the coaches called what turned out to be the perfect play.

With only 4.4 seconds left, Kayla inbounded the ball to Jeanette under the Xavier basket. Jeanette streaked down the court and made the winning basket. In fact, the ball was in the air when the buzzer sounded, but it had left her hands in time. Thus the game didn’t go into overtime, jubilation broke out on Stanford’s half of the court, Jeanette was mobbed by her joyous teammates, and Stanford was on its way to its third consecutive Final Four with a 55-53 victory.

Two days later, the team was packed and ready to go to San Antonio. Before going to the airport, the players were given an enthusiastic send-off by about 100 fans, the band, cheerleaders, Dollies, Tree and media types. “Our team has worked extremely hard to get here,” Tara told the crowd. “We’re not just going to Texas for the barbecue.”

Deep in the heart of Texas

The weather was hot and humid in San Antonio, but the hundreds of Stanford fans, along with fans from Baylor, UConn and Oklahoma, enjoyed the River Walk, Alamo and other attractions. Prior to the Oklahoma game on April 4, Stanford fans gathered at the team’s Hotel Contessa for a social and send-off. After a 10-minute serenade by the band, the team headed to the bus while clapping to “All Right Now”. Once everyone was aboard, the bus took off, escorted by two police motorcycles with lights flashing and sirens blaring.

The Alamodome atmosphere was noisy and electrifying as fans from all four schools milled about wearing their teams’ colors. Stanford and Oklahoma started off the evening’s action. Nneka paced Stanford to its 73-66 victory over the Sooners with a breathtaking 38-point, 16-rebound performance.

Few fans left after that game because they were eager to see how undefeated UConn would fare against Baylor with its 6’8” freshman phenom, Brittney Griner. No problem – the Huskies prevailed 70-50.

Two days later, Stanford fans gathered for a buffet and rally at Rio Rio Cantina restaurant near the team’s hotel. After enjoying Tex-Mex appetizers and other refreshments, the fans walked to the hotel for the send-off. Standing in front of the hotel, the team joined the fans and band in chanting, “This is our year. This is our team.” Then it was onto the bus, which again had a police escort.

The championship game was preceded by an impressive flag ceremony presented by military personnel from nearby bases. The crowd included Vice President Joe Biden and members of his family – thus necessitating stricter security at the gates.

Since UConn was the top No. 1 seed and Stanford was the second No. 1 seed, the Cardinal were in their red road uniforms for the first time since the regular season. The first half was low-scoring and ended with Stanford ahead 20-12, giving fans reason for cautious optimism.

UConn began to rally in the second half, especially after Jayne hobbled to the bench after aggravating her ankle injury. After retaping and a pain shot, she returned to the game. She gritted it out but finished the game scoreless for the first time in her college career. Still, she had seven rebounds and two assists in her 30 minutes. She also diverted defensive attention from her teammates and no doubt inspired them with her toughness. It later was revealed that she had been diagnosed with a stress fracture on March 21.

The final score was 53-47 in UConn’s favor. It was the closest margin of victory in the Huskies’ two-season, 78-game winning streak and its first by single digits.

Two days later, Jayne was in New Jersey with her parents and associate head coach Amy Tucker for the WNBA draft. It soon became apparent that she would be back in San Antonio because the Silver Stars, drafting fifth, made her their first-round choice. She then spent several days in Connecticut, where the USA National Team was training. Though she remained on the sidelines, she said she learned a lot. She also was reunited with Kayla and Nneka, who were there with the younger USA Select Team.

One final gathering

Before completing her travels and settling in San Antonio, Jayne joined her teammates one last time as friends, family and fans honored them at the bittersweet annual awards banquet at the Stanford Faculty Club on April 22.

Although the coaches usually announce the most outstanding player, best defensive player and most improved player, they decided to forgo those awards because of the team’s impressive record and the numerous individual honors garnered during the year.

In addition to its 36-2 overall record and Pac-10 championship, the team recorded the most rebounds ever – 1,719 total, or 45.2 per game, an 11.8 margin over opponents. It held opponents to a record-low 53.9 points per game and a record-low field goal percentage of .339 per game.

After praising each of the 15 players individually, Tara opened the floor to the three departing seniors – forward Michelle Harrison, Jayne and Ros. All three spoke emotionally of what an honor it was to play for Stanford and advised the underclassmen to savor every moment because the time goes fast.

Following a season highlights video by Bud Anderson, director of creative video, Sarah presented the Lizard Lung Award to junior guard Hannah Donaghe, the first upperclassman to receive her teammates’ lighthearted award for gullibility. Sarah was last year’s winner.

After dinner, as people mingled in the dining room, the team and coaches posed for their last pictures together. Then it was time for the 12 returning players to think about going back to their rooms, setting their alarm clocks for a 7 a.m. strength and conditioning workout, and getting ready for the 2010-11 season – which looks mighty promising once again.

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