Freshman guard Sara James has started to make her mark on the Stanford women’s basketball team by coming off the bench and doing whatever she can to help the Cardinal chalk up another win.
During the 93-78 victory over the University of Texas on Nov. 28, for example, she scored 5 points in four minutes, thanks to one 2-pointer and one 3-pointer. She also managed to pick up two fouls, perhaps a testament to her increasingly tough defense.
Another side of Sara emerged when she spoke to the Fast Break Club after the game. Unlike her fellow freshman, forward Chiney Ogwumike, who had spoken to the FBC two days earlier, “Sara’s a little more shy,” associate head coach Amy Tucker said as she introduced her. Nevertheless, “Sara was a star” when her Oak Ridge High School team notched an upset win in the state basketball championship game last year.
Sara, who hails from El Dorado Hills, east of Sacramento, has two older brothers. One is a practice player at UCLA, and the other went to UC Davis. Besides her parents, the James family includes Sadie, a terrier mix that came from the SPCA. Sadie attended some of the games at Kezar Pavilion this past summer when Sara and four Stanford teammates played in the pro-am league.
“Stanford was always my first choice” for college, Sara said, but she kept Cal, Gonzaga and perhaps Arizona State in mind “just in case” she wasn’t accepted at Stanford.
“Things are going well at the Farm,” she said. She hasn’t decided on a major, but in the meantime, she’s taking psychology, calculus and humanities classes. As a freshman, she’s had to make “a lot of adjustments at the same time” such as being away from home and keeping up with classes and practice.
She likes the physical play. “It’s a lot more fun at this level,” she said. She also likes bike riding, running and being outside in addition to working on her 3-point shot.
When Sara attended Stanford’s summer basketball camp, the coaches told her she needed to be a 3-point shooter in order to fit into the program. “More than anyone else, she got it,” Amy said. She went home and worked on that shot. “She is a relentless worker.”
“Sara is going to make a difference in our program based on her work ethic for sure,” Amy said.
Commenting on the game, Amy said that fouls “really changed the flow of the game.” She was referring to times like the latter minutes of the first half when senior forward Kayla Pedersen, senior guard Jeanette Pohlen and junior forward Nneka Ogwumike – the Big Three – were on the bench with two fouls each. Texas started to close the scoring gap, but the less-experienced players on the floor still kept the margin at 49-39 to close the half.
“Toni did a phenomenal job,” Amy said, referring to freshman point guard Toni Kokenis. “Our zone defense helped us,” she said. In addition, red-shirt sophomore forward Sarah Boothe “can make a difference for us.”
The game was “a coming-out party for Toni,” said head coach Tara VanDerveer, adding that Sarah, Nneka and freshman forward Chiney Ogwumike “got that inside game going.”
Toni was another player who attended the Stanford summer camp. When she was a sophomore and had made the Illinois all-state team, Amy sent her a congratulatory letter. “That was a good letter,” Tara said.
The coach praised several players including Chiney, “a very intelligent young woman,” and Kayla – “We call her the rock. She’s really a great helper.”
Overall, this is “a great young group,” she said. “This was a great game for us. … A lot of different people went in there and helped us.” She noted that one of the team’s strengths is its unselfishness. The players are glad when things go well for their teammates.
One of its weaknesses is that several players are young and inexperienced. However, “we’re the type of team where we want to be good at the end. … This is a really fun team to go to practice with every day,” as were the teams preceding it, Tara said.
Besides the winning score, the game had several unique factors, starting with the fact that Stanford was ahead 2-0 before the clock started running. Texas was assessed with an administrative technical foul because it had failed to turn in its starting lineup by 10 minutes before the game’s start. Hence, Kayla went to the free-throw line and made both attempts.
Several players’ families were in the stands. They included Jeanette’s mother, who was wearing a white T-shirt with a Stanford logo on the front and Jeanette’s number, 23, in sparkles on the back.
Sitting courtside near the family section were two illustrious alumnae – center Jayne Appel, ’10, and guard Candice Wiggins, ’08. The fans gave them a prolonged standing ovation when they were introduced later in the game. During the half, Candice presented basketballs autographed by Tara to the grade-school winners of the creative writing contest sponsored by Stanford women’s basketball. She also was the guest of TV broadcasters Mary Murphy and Jim Watson for part of the second half.
Shortly before the end of the first half, the entire Stanford football team was accorded a standing ovation as the players paraded onto the floor and displayed the Axe trophy, symbolic of the team’s victory over arch-rival Cal during the season. The 11-1 Cardinal had finished the regular season at home the previous day by shutting out Oregon State 38-0.
And in a show of class, when Chiney fouled out with 1:14 left in the game, she went over to the Texas bench and hugged head coach Gail Goestenkors. Since Chiney and sister Nneka are from Houston, it’s likely that Gail had them high on her recruiting wish list.