December 24, 2011

Happy holiday sendoff

After their thrilling win over the always-tough Tennessee just two nights earlier, Stanford women’s basketball players were ready for smoother sailing on Dec. 22. They got it courtesy of Cal State Bakersfield, which fell to the Cardinal 90-48.

Decimated by injuries, the Roadrunners had only seven players in uniform, and no starter was over 6 feet. Moreover, the team is transitioning to NCAA Division I, so meeting an elite team like Stanford presented a formidable challenge. Still, the Roadrunners played hard. Mostly unable to penetrate to the basket because of Stanford’s superior height, they amassed the majority of their score from 3-pointers – 10 in all.

For their part, Stanford’s starters had the luxury of spending much of the game on the sidelines, sipping Gatorade and cheering teammates who usually don’t get as much time in the spotlight.

As head coach Tara VanDerveer told fans in Kissick Auditorium after the game, it was a good chance for those players to get some valuable experience. The starters realized that their job on that night was just to get things going.

Those starters – senior forward Nneka Ogwumike, junior forward Joslyn Tinkle, sophomore forward Chiney Ogwumike, senior guard Lindy La Rocque and sophomore guard Toni Kokenis – did just that. On the opening tipoff, for example, rather than tipping the ball to a guard to get the offense going, Nneka tipped the ball straight to Chiney for the first 2 points. Not long after that, Lindy contributed two consecutive 3-pointers. The score was 14-2 at the first timeout with 16:42 to go.

Tara dispatched substitutes rather quickly, often leaving only one starter on the floor and sometimes none. By the time the buzzer had sounded to end the first half, the score was 47-17. During the half, fans who happened to go into the east concourse could look outside and see the Fiesta Bowl-bound football team practicing.

The same five starters took to the floor for the second half. Except for Joslyn, though, they didn’t stay there for long. Playing a total of 24 minutes, compared with between 13 and 15 for the other four starters, Joslyn led the team with a career-high 20 points plus 11 rebounds, three blocks, two steals and one assist.

Coming off the bench, freshman forward Bonnie Samuelson was the second-high scorer with 14, plus three rebounds, one assist and one steal in 20 minutes. Freshman forward Erica Payne wasn’t far behind with 12 points, nine rebounds, two blocks and one assist in 27 minutes, the most of any Cardinal.

Chiney was the only other player in double figures – 10 points to go with three rebounds, two assists, two steals and one block in 15 minutes. Nneka, who was so spectacular against Tennessee, produced 8 points, four rebounds, four assists, one block and one steal in her 13 minutes.

The Cardinal dominated in nearly every statistical category – 51-32 in rebounds, 24-12 in assists, 8-1 in blocks and 12-5 in steals. Stanford had 13 turnovers vs. Bakersfield’s 20, but eight fouls to the opponent’s five.

Accounting for Stanford’s six three-pointers were Lindy, Joslyn and Bonnie with two each.

Every available Stanford player saw action. However, only 11 players were available. Freshman forward Taylor Greenfield, who has started several recent games, was in uniform and warmed up but didn’t play. Tara said after the game that Taylor wasn’t at 100 percent, so she was held out as a precaution. Joslyn started in her place.

Freshman guard Alex Green is out for the season to rehab an Achilles injury. It was recently announced that freshman guard Jasmine Camp will miss the rest of the season and undergo surgery because of a stress fracture in her foot. Junior forward Mikaela Ruef has missed several games because of a foot problem, but the coaches hope to have her back in action.

During the post-game session, fans were treated to a visit from Nneka, who received a standing ovation. In the Tennessee game, Nneka delivered “one of the best performances I’ve ever seen on our home floor,” said associate head coach Amy Tucker. She was referring to Nneka’s career-high 42 points and 17 rebounds in 39 minutes.

In typical Nneka fashion, the team captain was modest about her accomplishments. Asked if she realizes the legacy she’s leaving, Nneka said, “I feel like I’m still a part of a legacy,” and cited such great predecessors as Jayne Appel, ’10, and Candice Wiggins,’08. “I’m a part of this program. I just do what I can do to help.”

One of the things she does is to mentor the six freshmen. “I call them my babies,” she said.

“She’s our unpaid assistant,” Amy said, noting Nneka often explains the coaches’ comments to the freshmen. This is a bit of a turnaround, for Nneka was known for asking many questions in earlier seasons. In the meantime, Amy said she had never seen a player improve as much from year to year as Nneka has.

Someone asked if Nneka felt as if she were in a zone against Tennessee. Nneka said it wasn’t really a zone. Instead she felt more in tune with what was going on and with the team and coaches. “I felt so alive. It was weird,” she said.

As the season continues, she’s trying to be more aggressive and to develop a 3-point shot. She also praised Susan Borchardt, sports performance coach, for helping her to get and stay in good condition. “She’s a huge help.”

Nneka “is the whole package,” Tara said, citing her unselfishness among other qualities. “She’s something really special.”

As for the team, “We’re really excited about this group,” she said, but “we still have a lot of work to do.”

The holiday spirit was evident at Maples as several fans sported Santa hats. A man seated upstairs near the flag was in full Santa regalia, white beard and all, and was accompanied by someone dressed as an elf. The band, down to an octet plus the leader, added its usual entertainment.

During a timeout in the second half, the video board showed pictures of the team and staff helping out at St. Anthony’s dining room in Menlo Park the morning after the Tennessee game. This holiday visit is a tradition for the team.

Now the players are enjoying a brief Christmas break at home with their families. They’ll report back on Dec. 26 to prepare for their Pac-12 opening games against USC and UCLA on Dec. 29 and 31 on the road.

December 22, 2011

Unstoppable Nneka wows crowd

There were ample reasons for excitement, but nothing could surpass the exuberance, exhilaration and sheer joy generated by Nneka Ogwumike at Maples Pavilion on Dec. 20. The senior forward’s career-high 42 points led the Stanford women’s basketball team to a 97-80 victory over the visiting Tennessee Lady Vols before a sell-out crowd of 7,329.

The team captain also hauled in 17 rebounds, dished out three assists and had two steals in her 39 minutes on the floor. Not to be overlooked, sophomore guard Toni Kokenis also posted a career high with 26 points plus four assists, one rebound and one steal in her 38 minutes. Also scoring in double figures was sophomore forward Chiney Ogwumike with 14 points plus five rebounds and one assist in 30 minutes. Her time was limited by an accumulation of four fouls.

Despite all this excitement, the evening had its poignant moments, too, in the wake of Tennessee head coach Pat Summit’s announcement before the season that she had been diagnosed with early-onset dementia, Alzheimer’s disease. To honor the legendary coach, who has more wins than any other coach, male or female, in NCAA history, fans were given red rally towels emblazoned with an “S” and reading, “We back Pat.”

After warmly applauding the Lady Vols as they came onto the court, the fans greeted Pat’s entrance with a prolonged standing ovation. Just before her arrival, a short video featured head coach Tara VanDerveer talking about her longtime colleague and friend’s accomplishments and courage. In a video shown at the half, Tara talked about ways to possibly prevent Alzheimer’s. “Reasons for hope” messages concerning Alzheimer’s flashed onto the video screen during timeouts.

To accommodate the expected crowd, doors at Maples opened earlier than usual, and two extra rows of chairs were added at both ends of the court. Once inside, a substantial number of people in orange could be seen searching for their seats. The fans also included players’ family members as well as the parents of alum Jayne Appel, ’10.

The evening got under way with an a cappella singing of the national anthem by Hookslide, the male quartet whose members include Stanford’s Bud Anderson, director of creative video. (In my account of the Princeton game, I neglected to say that team manager Natasha von Kaeppler sang the anthem.)

And speaking of creative video, Episode 3 of “The Real Ladies of Maples,” shot mostly by Chiney and shown before the game, focused on the team’s Thanksgiving dinner at the Ohio home of junior forward Mikaela Ruef.

Mikaela remained on the sidelines because of a sore foot. Joining her were freshman guards Alex Green, recovering from a torn Achilles tendon, and, for the first time, Jasmine Camp, who was on crutches because of a foot injury. As the team lined up while the starters were introduced, freshman forward Erica Payne gave Alex a big hug.

Besides Nneka, Chiney and Toni, the starters were freshman forward Taylor Greenfield and senior guard Lindy La Rocque. Together the starters accounted for all but 6 points in the final score. Freshman forward Bonnie Samuelson had five of those other points thanks to a 3-pointer and two free throws.

Tara had sent her to the free-throw line after a technical was called on Tennessee for having six players on the floor after a timeout in the first half. Also chipping in 3-pointers were Lindy with one, Taylor with two and Toni with five.

As the game started, Tennessee had the upper hand, leading by 9 points with 13:21 to go in the first half. That’s when Nneka and her teammates turned on the jets, closing the first half with a 48-41 lead. Stanford led by as many as 19 points with 2:06 to go in the second half. It was only a few seconds after that when Tara pulled all of the starters and sent in the reserves to ice the game.

After shooting 61.5 percent in the first half, Tennessee dropped to 37 percent in the second half, thanks in large part to tough Cardinal defense. It seemed that only free throws kept the Lady Vols’ hopes alive in the second half, when they made 16 of 21.

Besides winning the game, Stanford dominated in other stats: 35-29 in rebounds, 20-11 in assists and 7-3 in blocks. Junior forward Joslyn Tinkle recorded four of the blocks. Tennessee prevailed only in steals, 6-4. Stanford forced 13 turnovers while having nine of its own. Each team had 16 fouls.

When the teams went to their benches for timeouts, Maples provided other diversions. The one with the loudest, most enthusiastic reception was the introduction of the Stanford football team, which is headed for the Fiesta Bowl next month. Then there were fun features like Elf Cam, Santa Cam and Mistletoe Cam along with the ever-popular twist.

At halftime fans were treated to the gravity-defying stunts of the Showtime Dunkteam. Using their acrobatic and gymnastic skills as well as a mini-trampoline and a bouncy mat, these five young men bounced and flipped their way to the basket with increasingly difficult maneuvers set to music. The crowd loved them.

After the game, the players and coaches lined up to exchange their traditional greetings. Then both teams gathered in a circle at center court, their arms around each other, for a few moments. As the Lady Vols departed, the Stanford players remained in their own circle, many of them congratulating Toni as they awaited Nneka, who was being interviewed. She joined them to complete the circle before they all ran to the sideline to grab victory balls.

It was indeed a victory to celebrate – a decisive win over an always-formidable opponent and the successful defense of the home court win streak, now at 68 and in its fifth season.

Next up: Cal State Bakersfield and a short Christmas break before Pac-12 competition, starting with a road trip to USC on Dec. 29 and UCLA on Dec. 31.

December 17, 2011

West is best in battle of brains

Princeton, a leading Ivy League women’s basketball team, paid a visit to its West Coast academic match, Stanford, and left with an 85-66 defeat before a crowd of 4,277 on Dec. 17.

The visitors kept the game close throughout the first half and went to the locker room trailing by only 7 points, 39-32. Returning for the second half, Stanford turned up its offensive and defensive effort to lead by as much as 27 with 2:23 to go.

As expected, the Ogwumike sisters led the way, with senior forward Nneka pouring in 22 points to go with 12 rebounds, while sophomore forward Chiney had 21 points and nine rebounds. Sophomore guard Toni Kokenis was third in scoring with 11 and was the only other Cardinal in double figures.

Nneka and Chiney both started the game, joined by freshman forward Taylor Greenfield, freshman guard Jasmine Camp and senior guard Lindy La Rocque. Head coach Tara VanDerveer substituted liberally, giving everyone a taste of the action except for junior forward Mikaela Ruef, who’s still sidelined by a foot problem. There’s no timeline for her return, said associate head coach Amy Tucker.

When it comes to the rotation, “we’re giving everyone a look,” Amy said in a behind-the-bench session after the game. Except for Nneka and Chiney, who “are solid” at the 4 and 5, she said, the 1, 2 and 3 spots are still in flux, mainly because so many players are so young.

Speaking after the game, Tara gave her “compliments to Princeton. They have an excellent team.” She also complimented several players, including Chiney, Toni and Taylor, who “did a really nice job. She’s coming along well.”

Nneka also came in for accolades, especially her good-looking, high-arcing mid-range shot. She has been working on that shot to become more versatile. “She’s a woman with girls out there,” Tara said, citing her for great leadership, too.

However, “we’re going to need more contributions” from other players. “I don’t think we shot as well (45.2 percent) as we needed to today,” she said. “We have to rebound better and take care of the ball better.”

Stanford had a slight edge in rebounding, 46-42, but both teams had 17 turnovers. Princeton steals contributed to nine of Stanford’s TO’s, while Stanford had seven steals. On the plus side, Stanford had five blocks, while the Tigers had none. Stanford also led in assists, 13-9.

The team was coming off a two-week hiatus for finals, which ended Dec. 16. The team has two more games – Tennessee on Dec. 20 and Cal State Bakersfield on Dec. 22 -- before taking a brief holiday break and returning to the Farm on Dec. 26, said Eileen Roche, director of basketball operations.

One member of the Princeton coaching staff, Milena Flores, is a Stanford basketball alum, class of 2000. Now that this visit is behind her, “I’m looking forward to cheering for Stanford all the rest of the way,” she told the post-game crowd.

While Stanford fans gathered behind the bench to hear the coaches, dozens of Princeton fans socialized in the area of their bench while they waited for the team to emerge from the locker room. Princeton players Niveen Rasheed and Lauren Polansky are from the Bay Area and accounted for a large contingent of family and friends to cheer for them.

Stanford players had their own contingents. For example, several children and adults wore red and white tie-dye shirts with “Kokenis” and “31” stamped on them.

In keeping with the tradition of inviting the individual freshmen to speak to fans after a game, Jasmine was the post-game guest. She said she has been playing basketball “since I was 4 years old and never thought I’d wind up at Stanford.” She thought she’d play closer to her Atlanta home, but Stanford “is truly worth the trip. I have a great time here. It’s such a family. I love it,” said the articulate guard.

She has two brothers, ages 30 and 26. Her mother is an assistant principal at an elementary school, and her father heads the county probation department. As for her Stanford major, “I have no idea.”

She was asked to compare Stanford practices with her high school experiences. Her high school practices were much shorter and more casual while in “practice here, we go hard every minute.”

Another fan asked about the recruiting process. She said Tara and then-assistant coach Bobbie Kelsey made the official visit and had dinner at her home. Jasmine didn’t know that Tara is a vegetarian, but luckily “I made pasta salad on my own. She loved it. It got me in,” she joked. Several SEC schools and others recruited her, but “why go there when you can go to Stanford?” she said.

“We’ve been very excited about Jas,” Amy said. She brings great energy to the team and is loud and vocal, qualities that are important in a point guard, Amy added.

And as for the team’s victory over Princeton, it “was a good tune-up game for Tennessee,” Tara said. The game is sold out, so Eileen advised fans to arrive early.

December 6, 2011

Cardinal outshoot, outrebound Fresno State

“Fresno State has a good team ---- at their level.”

That’s the comment I heard from a man wearing a Fresno State sweatshirt as spectators were leaving Save Mart Center in Fresno on Dec. 4. That’s where the Stanford women’s basketball team had just defeated the home team 93-59.

Fresno State had a 5-2 record going into the game, helped in large part by sharpshooting from the 3-point line. The Cardinal edged out the Bulldogs in that statistical category with nine 3’s compared with Fresno’s eight. Once again, freshman forward Bonnie Samuelson led the team in treys by scoring on six of eight attempts, a 75 percent success rate. Senior guard Lindy La Rocque chipped in with two, while freshman forward Taylor Greenfield added one.

Wearing black road uniforms, Stanford led from the get-go and never ceded the lead or even tied. It pulled ahead 56-27 at the half. Shortly into the second half, the Cardinal led by 37 points, its largest margin.

The starting lineup featured Taylor along with senior Nneka Ogwumike and sophomore Chiney Ogwumike at the forward spots, while sophomore Toni Kokenis and freshman Jasmine Camp took on guard duty.

Initially, the game looked like “The Nneka and Chiney Show” with the two sisters dominating the boards and the scoring. Chiney played 27 minutes, the most of anyone on the team, scored 13 points and had a career-high 16 rebounds.

Even though Nneka sat out much of the first half with two fouls and played a total of only 18 minutes, she scored a team-high 21 points and pulled in 12 rebounds. Even when she wasn’t playing, she was helpful. When the ball got stuck between the backboard and rim, she got off the bench and used her leaping ability to free it.

Stanford’s superior height allowed the Cardinal to virtually own the boards, recording 67 rebounds to Fresno’s 28. The Cardinal also dominated in the assist department 26-12. Lindy led the team with five assists, closely followed by sophomore guard Sara James and freshman guard Amber Orrange with four each. The Cardinal had seven blocks to Fresno’s two. Bonnie and junior forward Joslyn Tinkle had three blocks each. Nneka had the other one.

On the other hand, Fresno took better care of the ball, amassing only 10 turnovers to Stanford’s 16. Fresno proved to be better at theft, too, recording seven steals to Stanford’s five. Stanford had 13 fouls to Fresno’s 18 but could have done a better job at the free-throw line, cashing in on only 44.4 percent of its shots, while Fresno made 55.6 percent.

It was good to see Lindy back in action after she had missed the UC Davis game with a sore foot. She took her customary place at the head of the line and led the team onto the floor for warmups. She had a total of 10 points, five assists and one steal in 22 minutes.

Junior forward Mikaela Ruef was still on the sidelines with a sore foot and leg. Freshman guard Alex Green, though on crutches, was able to travel with the team. She had missed the Thanksgiving week road trip to have surgery for a torn Achilles tendon. As the team warmed up, Laurie Payne, mother of freshman forward Erica Payne, went down to the bench to greet Alex. Various teammates and staff members also talked with her throughout the afternoon.

Otherwise, head coach Tara VanDerveer was able to allot playing time to everyone else on the team.

The arena went silent during the second half when Fresno’s Alex Furr, a 5’5” guard who had been pressuring Stanford’s point guards, cried out and fell to the floor clutching her knee. She was helped off the court and to the locker room. Wearing a large ice bag on her knee, she later walked back to the bench during a timeout and was warmly applauded.

Save Mart Center, which seats about 15,500, seemed sparsely populated, but the official attendance was 3,324. Several dozen Stanford fans figured into that number.

As the teams warmed up, a remote-controlled mini-blimp floated above the perimeter of the court. A four-person honor guard from the Fresno State Air Force ROTC presented both the U.S. and California flags preceding a recorded version of the national anthem.

The Stanford players had reason to celebrate even before the game because they knew that the women’s soccer team had won the NCAA national championship by defeating Duke 1-0 earlier in the day.

Stanford athletes are now taking a two-week break for study and finals. Women’s basketball returns to action Dec. 17 when Princeton comes to Maples.

December 2, 2011

Cardinal get their kicks with home win 66

Stanford women’s basketball had a relatively easy route to the team’s 66th consecutive home win by routing UC Davis 93-44 on Nov. 30.

The Aggies were a scrappy, disciplined group, but couldn’t overcome Stanford’s superior size and skill.

Four Stanford forwards – one from each class – scored in the double digits. They were led by senior Nneka Ogwumike with 20. She was closely followed by junior Joslyn Tinkle with a career-high 19. Next came sophomore Chiney Ogwumike with 18 and freshman Bonnie Samuelson with 15.

All of Bonnie’s points came from five of the team’s 11 3-pointers. Also scoring from beyond the arc was sophomore guard Sara James with two 3’s. Joslyn, freshman forward Taylor Greenfield, sophomore guard Toni Kokenis and freshman guard Amber Orrange had one each.

With senior guard Lindy La Rocque sidelined by what was reported to be a sore foot, Amber did the honors of leading the team onto the floor for pre-game drills. Freshman guard Jasmine Camp took Lindy’s place in the starting lineup. She was joined by regulars Nneka, Chiney, Taylor and Toni.

Even though Lindy didn’t play, she apparently had some influence on hairstyles. Bonnie, Joslyn and Nneka all sported Lindy’s signature long braid rather than their usual ponytails.

Junior forward Mikaela Ruef, who has had a sore foot and leg, was dressed but didn’t participate in the warmups or play. However, she was kept busy with the traditional high-fives along the bench after each 3-pointer.

As the buzzer signaled 10 minutes to go before the start of the game, the players lined up as usual for the national anthem. However, it was preceded by a minute of silence to honor Chester McGlockton, the Stanford assistant football coach and former pro player who had unexpectedly died that morning at the age of 42.

Although the score stayed close during the first few minutes of the game, Stanford began pulling ahead, ending the half up by 51-23. Things were so comfortable in the second half that Nneka went to the bench with 17:24 to go. She had played only 21 minutes.

None of the starters played more than 25 minutes (Chiney). Joslyn logged the most time with 31 minutes. With 3:19 to go in the game, announcer Betty Ann Boeving told that crowd that Joslyn had reached a career high with 17 points. Joslyn then added 2 more for her 19 total.

The Cardinal outrebounded the Aggies 47-16, led by Nneka, Chiney and Joslyn with nine each. Stanford won the assist battle, too, 24-10. Jasmine with six and Amber with five were the leaders in that category. Stanford had only nine personal fouls to the Aggies’ 14. The turnover numbers were exactly the same in Stanford’s favor.

Freshman guard Alex Green, who had surgery for a ruptured Achilles tendon last week, rejoined her teammates after missing the road trip to UConn and Xavier. She was on crutches and is expected to miss the rest of the season. She had just recently begun playing after recovering from an ACL injury that kept her out of action during her senior year of high school. Several fans stopped by to wish her well before the game, and various teammates and staff members talked with her during the game.

The scoreboard was still set up for volleyball because the women’s team will be in action this weekend as Stanford hosts first-round action in the NCAA tournament.