March 14, 2011

The last Pac-10 champions

The Stanford women’s basketball team continued its dominance of the Pac-10 by adding the tournament championship to its undefeated conference season. It also was the last Pac-10 WBB crown because next season the conference becomes the Pac-12 with the addition of Utah and Colorado.

The undefeated conference season gave the tournament’s top seed to the Cardinal, allowing it to sit out the first two rounds before a semi-final game March 11. Its opponent was Arizona, which had to win two games in two days to get to that level.

The competition – of sorts – started earlier than expected when the bands and cheerleaders from both schools were on hand at 10 a.m. to give their teams a loud sendoff from their hotel.

The Arizona delegation formed a reception line outside one door toward the waiting buses, while the Cardinal group, which also included the cheerleaders, Dollies and Tree, formed another line at the adjacent door. Joining them were perhaps two dozen fans and family members, who cheered as each player and coach appeared.

Although the two bands played simultaneously a few times, mostly they took turns. When the Arizona band launched into “Born to be Wild,” the Stanford players happily joined in the refrain.

The bands also played in the plaza outside Staples Center before the game. The Arizona band led off, followed by the Stanford band, which made its familiar running entrance as passersby took photos. Just before tipoff in the arena, it was the Stanford band that did the honors for “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

After that, the crowd was treated to a lot of Stanford as the Cardinal women dominated the game from beginning to end, amassing a record 100 points against Arizona’s 71.

Although all 13 uniformed Stanford players got into the game, it was the bigs who did the most damage. Junior forward Nneka Ogwumike led the way with 32 points, followed by freshman forward Chiney Ogwumike with 21, senior forward Kayla Pedersen with 16 and red-shirt sophomore forward Sarah Boothe with 12.

All told, Stanford had 64 points in the paint, compared with Arizona’s 18. The Cardinal outrebounded the Wildcats 41-29 and had 30 assists to Arizona’s 10.

After briefly joining their families, the players, along with the coaches, returned to the arena to scout the other semi-final game between Cal and UCLA. Thus they were on hand to cheer when Kayla was honored with the annual Pac-10 Women's Basketball Scholar-Athlete Award. She received a plaque, and Toyo Tires, the award’s sponsor, gave $1,000 to the Stanford athletic scholarship fund. Last year the award went to Stanford’s Jayne Appel, ’10.

The competition and story line were different on March 12, when Stanford faced UCLA for the championship. The 9:30 a.m. sendoff from the hotel involved only the Stanford contingent, but it was far from quiet. With the band playing under the overhang at the entrance, the sound was amplified. With more such sendoffs likely in the NCAA tournament, fans would be well advised to have earplugs handy. They help a lot.

The game against UCLA had a promising start as junior guard Lindy La Rocque opened the scoring with a 3-pointer, but things began going downhill fairly fast. UCLA played tough defense, especially near the basket, bottling up the bigs and forcing Stanford to shoot from the outside.

At the half, the Cardinal women found themselves in an unfamiliar spot, trailing 21-30. UCLA expanded its lead to 11 points early in the second half, but then Stanford began closing the gap.

Coming off the bench, freshman guard Toni Kokenis provided some needed spark as she finished the game with a team-high and career-high 17 points. The speedy guard also contributed two rebounds, two assists and a steal in 23 minutes. Some of her points came from fast breaks as well as two crucial 3-pointers. Senior guard Jeanette Pohlen made two important 3’s in her 40 minutes on the court. Nneka, who had 15 points, and Kayla, who had 12, also played the full 40 minutes.

As the Stanford women rallied, their fans urged them along. Sitting behind me, two men, Stanford grads from Orange County, came up with a terrific variation on the “De-fense” chant. “Tree-fense,” they yelled. Others seated near us picked up on it.

After the game, the victorious players donned the traditional T-shirts and hats before Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott presented the championship trophy to Tara. She subsequently handed it to the team’s tri-captains – Kayla, Jeanette and Nneka.

Then it was time to cut down the nets, with the players going alphabetically, starting with Sarah and ending with sophomore forward Joslyn Tinkle. They were followed by the staff and coaches. Tara made the final cut and held up the net before tossing it to Nneka, who put it around her neck. The net-cutting ritual went faster than usual because there were two ladders and two pairs of scissors, eliminating waiting time between players.

After the team, coaches and staff had posed for group photos, Chiney was honored as part of the five-member all-tournament team. Then Nneka was named the tournament’s most outstanding player.

There were more festivities for the team and fans in the plaza shortly after the game, but by then I was headed homeward.

Next up – the Big Dance.

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