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.

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