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.

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