March 23, 2011

Mission accomplished at Maples

When the Stanford women’s basketball team faced St. John’s University of New York City in the second round of NCAA competition March 21 at Maples Pavilion, the obvious goal was to win the game and advance to the Spokane regional.

In accomplishing that goal by a score of 75-49, the team’s seniors also did something no other Cardinal class before them had done – they ended their four years with a perfect record of 63-0 at home. They also gave themselves a berth in their fourth consecutive Sweet Sixteen in hopes of heading for their fourth Final Four.

But this game wasn’t just about senior starters, guard Jeanette Pohlen and forward Kayla Pedersen, along with forward Ashley Cimino and injured guard Hannah Donaghe plus fifth-year senior guard Melanie Murphy.

No, this was a total team effort with scoring led by junior forward Nneka Ogwumike with 22 points and five rebounds and Kayla with 14 points and eight rebounds. Freshman forward Chiney Ogwumike, celebrating her 19th birthday, had 13 points and 12 rebounds, and Jeanette had 8 points.

The team’s two sophomores – forwards Mikaela Ruef and Joslyn Tinkle – made significant contributions. Their heads-up plays resulted in seven points, seven rebounds, two assists and one block by Joslyn and five points, four rebounds, four assists, one block and one steal by Mikaela. Their point totals included one 3-pointer each, to go with two each by Jeanette and Kayla.

As a team, the Cardinal had edges of 41-25 in rebounds, 19-11 in assists and 6-1 in blocks. The Red Storm had a 7-3 edge in steals and a 9-13 edge in turnovers.

The first half of the game was nip-and-tuck for a while, with St. John’s holding as much as an 8-point lead, but the Cardinal began closing the gap and pulled ahead to a score of 38-30 at the half.

The first half also was unsettling because freshman guard Toni Kokenis, who has become such a spark off the bench, limped off the court and then into the locker room with what appeared to be an ankle injury. When she returned to her teammates with about 11 minutes to go in the second half, the crowd of just more than 5,900 gave her a prolonged standing ovation.

Head coach Tara VanDerveer said in the post-game press conference that Toni would have a precautionary X-ray, but Tara was hopeful of having her ready for the March 26 game against North Carolina. Chiney was due for a precautionary X-ray on her finger, but she was able to stay in the game.

Halftime was highlighted by the introduction of the Stanford men’s volleyball team, which won the 2010 NCAA national championship.

When first Jeanette and then Kayla left the game near the end, they were loudly and deservedly cheered. With just 8.2 seconds to go, Tara walked along the bench and high-fived each player.

Afterward, many in the crowd waited while Tara, Kayla and Jeanette were interviewed for TV. As they walked toward the locker rooms, there were yet more cheers for the two senior leaders in their final home game and for Tara for guiding them.

Now it’s on to Spokane, where the class of 2011 journeyed to its first Sweet Sixteen in 2008, enjoyed two victories and went on to the Final Four and the championship game in Tampa.

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