November 30, 2010

Getting acquainted with Sara

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.

November 27, 2010

Cardinal outshoots the Gamecocks

"It’s fun to see different people stepping up,” head coach Tara VanDerveer told the Fast Break Club after the Stanford women’s basketball team recorded a 70-32 victory over South Carolina on Nov. 26, the day after the team had a Jimmy V’s Thanksgiving dinner with other athletes in Dallmar Court.

All 12 healthy players got into the game, and no one played more 30 minutes. The starting lineup featured senior guard Jeanette Pohlen and four forwards, one from each class -- senior Kayla Pedersen, junior Nneka Ogwumike, sophomore Joslyn Tinkle and freshman Chiney Ogwumike. Tara substituted rather freely. With 4:25 to go in the game and the score at 64-28, the last of the starters was on the bench.

“A lot of different people are getting looks,” Tara said. She hasn’t decided which combinations work best together. “It’s a puzzle to put together.”

In this game, “our plan was to go inside,” thus opening opportunities on the perimeter. The strategy worked as the Cardinal made eight of 19 3-point shots, or 42.1 percent. Jeanette sank four 3s, Joslyn had two, and Kayla and freshman guard Sara James had one each.

The post-game session gave the FBC a chance to meet Chiney. “This is not a shy one,” associate head coach Amy Tucker said as she introduced the freshman. “I love Stanford so far. It’s great,” Chiney said. Commenting on the game, she said, “You can see how much we’ve been practicing.”

Fans also may have seen that “I have somebody who looks just like me on the team,” she said, referring to her older sister, Nneka. She also noted that the two sisters had a large family contingent at the game, including their mother, two younger sisters and several others.

Chiney didn’t start playing basketball until she was about 10 years old, after Nneka took up the game and got better and better. “We played in the driveway.”

She hasn’t decided on a major, but she’s considering a combination law-business degree program like the one that assistant coach Kate Paye earned at Stanford. International relations and communications are other possibilities.

She chose Stanford after asking herself, “What’s the best combination of athletics and academics? That was an easy decision.”

One of the big differences she has seen between the high school and college game is that in high school one person can set the tone, while “in college it takes five people to set the tone of the game. We call it tag team.”

She and Nneka played together in high school, but now that Nneka has two years of college experience, “she has completely developed into someone I don’t even know,” Chiney said, citing her sister’s maturity and experience. Still “we have protective instincts for each other,” and Chiney trusts Nneka’s advice.

“She’s something else, isn’t she?" Amy said as she excused Chiney. “Nneka is quite the little coach with Chiney.” As for the game, “I was happy to see our offense get going. Everyone did something well,” she said.

Other guests at the FBC gathering included South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley and assistant coach Nikki McCray, who both were on the 1996 gold-medal winning Olympics team coached by Tara. “I’ve learned the most basketball from Tara,” Dawn said, adding that she was pleased that “we got a warm reception” from the Stanford fans.

Also speaking highly of Tara were Ruthie Bolton, another player on the 1996 Olympics team and a former professional player; and Edna Campbell, a former professional player who coaches the varsity girls basketball team at a Sacramento high school. Ruthie was there with her 18-month-old daughter.

Tara concluded the session by praising her team’s defense and the leadership of the Big Three – Jeanette, Kayla and Nneka – who accounted for 35 of the team’s 70 points.

November 20, 2010

First & Main comes through with Utah game

Undaunted by Friday night traffic, the oncoming rain and a 6 p.m. tipoff, about 30 fans of Stanford women’s basketball gathered at the First & Main sports bar in Los Altos to watch their team defeat the University of Utah 62-53 on Nov. 19.

And undaunted by the absence of junior forward Nneka Ogwumike and a sloppy first half, other players stepped up to clinch the win. Nneka was in uniform but did not play for undisclosed reasons. Fans in Los Altos noted that two fingers were taped together.

Red-shirt sophomore center Sarah Boothe started in Nneka’s place, along with senior guard Jeanette Pohlen, senior forward Kayla Pedersen, sophomore forward Joslyn Tinkle and freshman forward Chiney Ogwumike.

The gathering at First & Main was a last-minute affair arranged by Cardinal fan AndrĂ© Lalana. Although the game was televised by the Mountain Network, it wasn’t available in the Bay Area except to Direct TV customers. Luckily, First & Main is one of them. Consequently, the fans there got to watch the game in comfort while enjoying their dinner and drinks.

There were lots of groans after missed opportunities during the first half and many more cheers in the second half as Jeanette, Kayla and teammates began to take over. Still, people gave the young Utes credit for staying in close range.

Even though the fans wanted Stanford to win, they cheered loudly for starting Utes forward Michelle Harrison, who played 36 minutes. Her 14 points, including four 3’s, led her team in scoring.

Michelle had worn the Stanford uniform with the number 5 for the past four years and graduated in June, but she had a year of eligibility left after missing a year with a torn ACL. The Utah resident was granted a waiver to play that final year while in graduate school at Utah, and 5 is still on her uniform.

Jeanette led the Cardinal scoring with 19, followed by Kayla with 13. The TV announcers noted that when Kayla scored her 10th and 11th points on a 2-point basket, she moved into the ranks of Stanford’s top 10 all-time scorers.

The game ended with Kayla holding the ball and Michelle guarding her as the final seconds ticked off. The two hugged when the final buzzer sounded. There were more hugs all around as the two teams exchanged their traditional greetings.

Speaking immediately after the game, Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer said, “This is a great win for our team.” She praised the younger team members who were able to record more playing time than they had against Rutgers. Tara had said after that game that she wanted to get more players into the mix and not rely so heavily on the Big Three of Kayla, Jeanette and Nneka.

She realized that goal against Utah as Chiney, Sarah, Joslyn, sophomore forward Mikaela Ruef, junior guard Lindy La Rocque and freshman guards Sara James and Toni Kokenis all had a chance to contribute.

November 14, 2010

Cardinal prevails over Scarlet

“This is a really good first game for us,” head coach Tara VanDerveer told fans after the Stanford women’s basketball team defeated the Rutgers Scarlet Knights 63-50 in Maples Pavilion on Nov. 14.

“For freshmen, this first game is an eye-opener,” she said, indicating that she was pleased with them. Forward Chiney Ogwumike had 9 points and 12 rebounds in 21 minutes. Guard Toni Kokenis added 2 points and four rebounds in 18 minutes, while guard Sara James saw two minutes of action.

“Rutgers is an excellent opponent for us,” Tara said. “This was not an easy game. We had to battle, (but) our team will learn from it.”

One fan pointed out that Stanford went for a long time with no fouls (none in the first half and only five for the game). “I really felt that we were not aggressive enough,” the coach said, adding the caveat that she doesn’t want too many fouls from her players. She did note that the team “became more aggressive in the second half” after leading by only three points, 32-29, at the end of the first half.

Tara was joined by senior guard Jeanette Pohlen, who is “very special for our team,” Tara said. She praised Jeanette’s “leadership skills that are way off the charts. … She’s vocal. She commands the respect of her teammates.”

“We really appreciate all your support,” Jeanette told the fans. Speaking of the team, she said, “We have so many people who can contribute on offense,” so she just tries to look for who’s open. In the meantime, “we’re trying to focus on defense.”

Jeanette said that she and many of her teammates worked on their skills at summer school. Then in the month between the summer and fall terms, she went home and worked with the speed coach and the trainer who had helped her so much between her freshman and sophomore years.

When she has free time, “First I study,” she said. “We watch a lot of movies” or go out to dinner, keeping things fun and light. The players like to hang out together.

As for the Dec. 30 game against UConn, which handed Stanford its only two losses last season, including the NCAA championship game in April, “We will take that as it comes,” Jeanette said. “Our coaches will have us prepared.”

The starting lineup featured Jeanette at the point along with four forwards: senior Kayla Pedersen, junior Nneka Ogwumike, sophomore Joslyn Tinkle and Chiney. Together they scored 59 of the team’s 63 points. Jeanette, Kayla and Nneka – the Big Three and the team’s co-captains – played the entire game. Nneka led the team in scoring with 20 points, followed by Kayla with 13, Joslyn with 10, Chiney with 9 and Jeanette with 7. Chiney’s 12 rebounds led the team, while Jeanette dished out a team-high eight assists.

The band and Tree were there along with two flag-carrying men. There also was a fairly good turnout of students, who perhaps were lured by the free tank tops and Jimmy V’s barbecue given to the first arrivals at the student entrance. Most of the students sat behind the north basket. As indicated by two sign-waving students in the front row, it seems that one of the freshmen already has a fan club. One of the homemade signs said, “Toni Kokenis – I love you.”

During the half, the crowd of more than 5,800 honored members of the men’s volleyball and women’s tennis teams, both of which were 2010 national champions. After entertainment by the Cardinal Calypso Players and their steel drums, announcer Betty Ann Boeving reported that the women’s soccer team had won its second round of the NCAA tournament at home that afternoon.

As the game wound down, Eileen Roche, director of basketball operations, stood at the exit near the home bench, ready to hand out victory balls for the players to toss into the stands. In the meantime, she was petting a campus policeman’s tail-wagging black Labrador retriever. Before long, the dog was on her back for a belly rub. Not much aggression there.

Several players’ parents were in the stands. They included forward Sarah Boothe’s parents, who had come from the Chicago area and marveled at the weekend’s wonderfully balmy weather as they entered Maples. Undoubtedly Joslyn’s father, Wayne, also liked the contrast in climate between Stanford and the University of Montana, where he coaches the men’s basketball team.

Tara acknowledged the presence of all the parents, noting that “Jeanette’s mom and dad have traveled all over the world” to follow her basketball career.

The final question for Tara focused on what it’s like to coach the Ogwumike sisters. Tara said there are good dynamics between them, and “they’re wonderful young women to coach.” No doubt that comment could apply to the entire team.

November 11, 2010

Mostly harmonious final tune-up

There’s a lot to be learned from the Stanford women’s basketball team’s two exhibition games this week. Most of it is quite encouraging, as evidenced by the team’s 100-52 win over UC San Diego on Nov. 9.

Others have already reported well on the UCSD game’s many highlights, such as the strong performance by the three freshmen and the luxuriously versatile depth at the forward spots.

So just to summarize: Head coach Tara VanDerveer’s starting lineup featured the Big Three – senior guard Jeanette Pohlen, senior forward Kayla Pedersen and junior forward Nneka Ogwumike – along with red-shirt sophomore forward Sarah Boothe and freshman guard Toni Kokenis. Toni scored the Cardinal’s first two points after stealing the ball.

After being held out of the Vanguard exhibition game because of a sore ankle, Nneka was used sparingly but still contributed eight points, three rebounds and one block in 13 minutes. Her younger sister, freshman forward Chiney Ogwumike, came off the bench to lead the stat sheet with 24 points, eight rebounds, three assists and one block in 23 minutes. Fans are eager to see what happens when Nneka is back to full speed and the sisters are teamed up on the floor.

Kayla and Jeanette, though playing only 20 minutes each, are looking better than ever. Neither does any showboating. Both play with determination and intelligence. Kayla sometimes seems unstoppable, while Jeanette has become smooth as silk, playing with little wasted motion.

The defense looked better than it had against Vanguard. UCSD didn’t get its first basket until almost five minutes into the game. On the other hand, Vanguard limited the Cardinal to just three 3’s (one from Jeanette, two from Kayla), but it had no answer for the taller, stronger front court. Moreover, the forwards were generous in passing the ball, dealing out 16 of the team’s 23 assists.

With Stanford comfortably ahead 47-17 in the first half, Tara turned the floor over to the three freshmen – Toni, Chiney and guard Sara James -- along with the two sophomores – forwards Joslyn Tinkle and Mikaela Ruef -- who closed it out with the score at 51-20.

All 12 healthy players got into the game with most making solid contributions. It’ll be interesting to see how the starting lineup and player rotation evolve during the season, when the Cardinal will face some tough contenders.

While the Vanguard exhibition had been no frills with none of the usual supporting student cast, this one took on a more seasonal flavor with the addition of the band, Tree and Dollies. The scoreboard, though still set for volleyball, added a video feed with real-time action and replays. Betty Ann Boeving was back at the mike to provide her well-balanced, skillful announcing.

For those with fond memories of the past 36-2 season, a halftime video of 2009-10 highlights was awe-inspiring, especially the repeat of Jeanette’s remarkable 4.4-second dash across the court to defeat Xavier and send the Cardinal to the Final Four for the third consecutive year.

A key player on that team, graduated guard Rosalyn Gold-Onwude, was seen chatting with Eileen Roche, director of women’s basketball operations, and others before the game. I later learned that she provided color commentary for the video feed. She reportedly was practicing for the national coverage she’ll be doing for ESPN this season.

Next up: An it-counts-on-the-record encounter with Rutgers in Maples at 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 14.

November 6, 2010

Let the fun begin

Sure, it was only an exhibition game, the first outing of the 2010-11 season, but the Stanford women’s basketball team gave its fans lots to cheer for and lots to look forward to as it defeated Vanguard 116-65 at Maples Pavilion.

There was some trepidation at first because junior forward Nneka Ogwumike didn’t play. She had a sore left ankle and was kept out of the game as a precautionary measure, according to the sports information department.

But have no fear. Younger sister Chiney Ogwumike started in her place and contributed 24 points and a team-high 16 rebounds to go with one assist, two blocks and no fouls in her 25-minute freshman debut. In fact, she had a double-double just in the first half with 16 points and 12 rebounds.

Coming off the bench, the other two freshmen also had auspicious debuts. Guard Sara James scored 16 points – including four 3’s – to go with three rebounds and four assists in her 21 minutes. Fellow guard Toni Kokenis, a speedster who ably filled in at the point, scored 4 points, all on free throws, to go with two assists and two steals in 20 minutes.

The starting lineup featured four forwards -- red-shirt sophomore Sarah Boothe at center plus sophomore Joslyn Tinkle, Chiney and senior Kayla Pedersen – with senior Jeanette Pohlen at the point. Kayla opened the scoring with a 3-pointer, followed by 2 points from Chiney. All five starters scored in double figures, led by Kayla with 25 points, followed by Chiney with 24, Jeanette with 16, and Joslyn and Sarah with 10 each.

Toni was first off the bench, subbing for Joslyn at 17:31 in the first half. Sara was next at 14:35. Head coach Tara VanDerveer substituted rather freely throughout the game so that no one played more than 27 minutes (Sarah).

By the end of the game, every healthy player had seen action. Even junior guard Lindy La Rocque got in for six minutes. That was a good sign because she had been hampered by a foot problem and had just been cleared to practice, according to the sports information departhment. Fellow guard Hannah Donaghe, senior, is out for the season after a recent ACL injury. Fifth-year senior guard Melanie Murphy, rehabbing her knee after surgery in the spring, is expected to return later this season.

When the team huddled before the second half, it was Mel who was exhorting her teammates. In the meantime, Hannah has inherited the fun duty of high-fiving the bench whenever a teammate scores a 3. She was kept plenty busy as the Cardinal poured in 14 3’s – four each from Jeanette and Sara, two each from Kayla and sophomore forward Mikaela Ruef, and one each from Joslyn and senior forward Ashley Cimino.

It was one of Sara’s 3’s that pushed the Stanford score to the century mark with about 6 minutes to go in the second half. Mikaela had one of her best Stanford games with 7 points, 11 rebounds (second on the team), two assists and two steals.

On the other hand, Vanguard had 16 3’s, in part because its players had a hard time getting past the much taller Stanford women to get to the basket. Rebounding also was a problem for the Lions as the Stanford trees grabbed 67 rebounds, as opposed to Vanguard’s 27.

Because it was an exhibition game, there were no support groups like the band, cheerleaders, Dollies or Tree. “It’s All Right” came through as a recording.

One slight difference from last year is the way the players lined up for the National Anthem. Instead of standing in a line in front of the bench, they lined up by height – from 6’5” Sarah to 5’8” Lindy and then the coaches -- across the court at the free-throw line.

During the first half, the team was cheered by three recent alumni – Jayne Appel and JJ Hones, both ’10, and Morgan Clyburn, ’09 -- who sat in the front row just behind the Vanguard basket. About midway through the half they were joined by Rosalyn Gold-Onwude, who completed her fifth year last year. Jayne’s parents sat behind them. After speaking to and signing autographs for several youngsters and adults who gathered around them at the half, the former players left, but Jayne’s parents stayed.

Next up: UC San Diego in another exhibition Nov. 9. Then for-real competition starts with the Cardinal hosting Rutgers on Nov. 14.