May 1, 2011

Thanks for the memories, Part 3 of 3

By virtue of its second consecutive undefeated Pac-10 season, the Stanford women’s basketball team earned the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament in Los Angeles.

Because of a change in the tournament format, the Cardinal enjoyed two byes and automatically went into the semi-final game. Moreover, another change moved that game and the final game to Staples Center, while the earlier games were played at USC’s Galen Center, where all the women’s games had been played in recent years.

Finally, the men’s and women’s games were scheduled over the same time period, but all of the men’s games were at Staples.

Pac-10 Tournament

ARIZONA --- The new format meant that Stanford’s first opponent was Arizona, which had to win two games on two consecutive days to reach the semi-finals on March 11. The game was scheduled at noon, but a sort of competition started two hours earlier at the hotel where the teams were staying.

Both teams’ bands and fans were there for a send-off, with the Arizona delegation forming a reception line outside one door toward the waiting buses, while the Cardinal group formed another line at the adjacent door. Mostly the bands took turns playing, but when the Arizona band launched into “Born to be Wild,” the Stanford players happily joined in the refrain.

The players and their fans also were happy at the game’s outcome, with Stanford winning 100-71. All 13 uniformed players got into the game, but the forwards led the way. Junior Nneka Ogwumike had 32 points, followed by freshman Chiney Ogwumike with 21, senior Kayla Pedersen with 16 and red-shirt sophomore Sarah Boothe with 12. 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 Cal-UCLA semi-final game. Thus they saw Kayla receive the annual Pac-10 Women’s Basketball Scholar-Athlete Award. She got a plaque, and Toyo Tires, the sponsor, gave $1,000 to the Stanford athletic scholarship fund.

UCLA --- The team enjoyed another sendoff from the hotel the next day, March 12, before facing UCLA for the championship. Stanford trailed 21-30 at the half, but heated up in the second half. Freshman guard Toni Kokenis came off the bench to provide a spark, finishing the game with a team-high and career-high 17 points. The final score was 64-55.

Thus Stanford became the last Pac-10 women’s champion. Next season the conference will become the Pac-12 with the addition of Colorado and Utah.

NCAA Rounds One & Two

UC DAVIS --- NCAA competition began March 19 at Maples. The weather outside was cold and rainy, but the No. 1-seeded Cardinal reigned inside with 13 3-pointers and an 86-59 victory over No. 16 seed UC Davis. The 13 3’s were the most since 14 in the exhibition game against Vanguard. The most in a regular season game was 12 at Arizona in February.

Junior guard Lindy La Rocque had four 3’s, followed by Kayla, senior guard Jeanette Pohlen and Toni with three each. All five starters were in double figures. Nneka had a game-high 22 points, while Lindy had 14, Jeanette and Kayla had 11 each, and Chiney had 10. Toni had 11 off the bench.

As the Cardinal continued to pull ahead in the second half, the more than 6,500 people packing Maples were entertained by the antics of the Aggies’ mustang mascot, Gunrock.

ST. JOHN’S --- The Cardinal’s next opponent at Maples was No. 9 seed St. John’s, which had defeated No. 8 seed Texas Tech. Stanford won handily, 75-49. Thus the team’s four true seniors did something no other Cardinal class before them had done – they ended their collegiate careers with a perfect 63-0 home record of 63-0. They also gave their team a berth in their fourth consecutive Sweet Sixteen in hopes of heading for their fourth Final Four.

Still, the March 21 victory was a total team effort with the scoring led by Nneka with 22 points and Kayla with 14. Chiney, celebrating her 19th birthday, had 13 points and 12 rebounds. The team’s two sophomores, forwards Mikaela Ruef and Joslyn Tinkle, made significant contributions. Their heads-up plays resulted in 7 points, seven rebounds, two assists and one block by Joslyn and 5 points, four rebounds, four assists, one block and one steal by Mikaela. They each had a 3-pointer, to go with two each by Jeanette and Kayla.

The only unsettling moment came when Toni limped off the court and then into the locker room with what appeared to be an ankle injury. When she returned to the bench with about 11 minutes to go in the second half, the crowd of just more than 5,900 gave her a prolonged standing ovation.

Spokane Regional

Stanford fans were vastly outnumbered at the Spokane regional, but their team was not outscored. Instead the Cardinal defeated No. 5 North Carolina 72-65 on March 26 and No. 11 Gonzaga 83-60 to win the regional trophy on March 28.

Because Spokane is Gonzaga’s hometown, the Spokane Arena was packed with its fans. The roar was deafening when the underdog Zags defeated No. 7 Louisville 76-69 on March 26.

Everywhere you looked around town, people sported the Gonzaga logo. Two exceptions were the Davenport Hotel, the Cardinal headquarters, and the neighboring Post Street Ale House, which hosted fan get-togethers before the team send-offs.

Even though most of the Louisville and North Carolina contingents had left, the arena was packed for the Stanford-Gonzaga showdown. While waiting for the game to start, fans kept track of the game between a No. 2 seed, Notre Dame, and another No. 1 seed, Tennessee. The Irish won that one 73-59.

Gonzaga trailed through most of the game but stayed fairly close during the first half, which ended 47-38. With 1:14 left and the score at 79-58, Gonzaga’s phenomenal senior point guard, Courtney Vandersloot, left the game. She received a prolonged standing ovation from the entire crowd and ended as the game’s leading scorer with 25 points.

She also was named to the all-regional team along with Kayla, Chiney and North Carolina’s Italee Lucas. Nneka was named the tournament’s most outstanding player with a total of 42 points and 14 rebounds in the two games.

Final Four

Stanford’s hopes for a national championship evaporated in a mere 3 seconds after Texas A&M scored the winning basket to inch ahead 63-62 in the semi-final game at Indianapolis on April 3.

It appeared that the Cardinal had the upper hand when a basket by Nneka put her team ahead 62-61 with 9 seconds to go, but the Aggies managed to get the ball down the court and score.

It was a bitter disappointment for the team that had gone to four consecutive Final Fours and returned home empty-handed. Still, the team and individual players can point to a long list of accomplishments.

The outcome might have been different if just a few things had been different, but the Aggies played strong defense, an attribute that led them to dispatch Notre Dame 76-70 in the championship game on April 5. Both Notre Dame and the Aggies were No. 2 seeds. The Aggies had bounced Baylor in their regional, while Notre Dame defeated Tennessee in their regional before knocking off UConn in the other semi-final game.

The day of the semi-final games began with high hopes and high spirits at Stanford’s Crowne Plaza Hotel.

The crowd included several hundred fans and family members like Erica and Olivia Ogwumike. They were wearing T-shirts made by their mother that had “Go Sis” on the front and the numbers 13 and 30 on the back, for older sisters Chiney and Nneka, respectively.

Three children wearing Tree costumes with “Sprig” on one, “Sprout” on another and “Shrub” on the third, quickly became favorites for photos, posing with the cheerleaders.

The Stanford-Texas A&M game was tight, with nine lead changes and four ties. Statistically, Stanford led in rebounds, 39-29; assists, 13-10; blocks, 8-5; steals 8-7; and points in the paint, 32-22. The Cardinal had 18 fouls to the Aggies’ 19, but the Aggies made all 10 of their free throws while Stanford made 13 of 19. The Aggies had 12 turnovers, which led to 10 Stanford points, while Stanford had 22 that led to 21 Aggie points.

Nneka led both teams in scoring with 31 points. Jeanette was the only other Cardinal in double figures with 11, while Kayla was the game leader with 10 rebounds. Chiney and fifth-year senior guard Melanie Murphy both fouled out late in the game. Jeanette went to the bench with a sprained ankle after the Aggies’ final basket with 3.3 seconds left. Stanford’s effort to get the ball up the court was unsuccessful, and so ended the game.

Despite their deep disappointment, the Stanford players and coaches accepted the loss gracefully, as demonstrated in the post-game press conference with Nneka, Kayla, Mel and head coach Tara VanDerveer.

There was no finger-pointing, no blaming. Instead they complimented the Aggies. The players’ biggest regret, as voiced by Kayla, was that they would no longer be playing with and for their teammates. That’s a sentiment shared by their saddened fans, who will miss Mel, Kayla, Jeanette, forward Ashley Cimino and guard Hannah Donaghe.

Spring Banquet

The team and fans had one more opportunity to get together at the annual spring banquet on April 20 at the Stanford faculty club. It was both a celebration of the 2010-11 season and a sad farewell to some of the people who made it so successful.

Besides the five senior players, the team is losing senior managers Kerry Blake and Dorothy Boakye Donkor. The coaching staff is losing assistant Bobbie Kelsey, who has been named head coach at the University of Wisconsin.

People in the sold-out crowd of more than 300 congratulated her and wished her well. She told the guests that she hopes to import some of Stanford’s wisdom to her Badger team, but “for all you folks who want us to schedule Stanford – forget about it,” she said.

Like Bobbie, Kayla and Jeanette drew crowds of well-wishers during the social before the dinner. Kayla is headed for the Tulsa Shock after going seventh in the recent WNBA draft, and Jeanette will play for the Indiana Fever after going ninth.

Ashley is applying for graduate schools near her home in Maine and is hoping for an internship in public relations. Mel said she’ll probably go back to New York and perhaps run basketball clinics. She wants to continue working with Candice Wiggins,’08, who’s leading an autumn trip to Spain, where she played after her first season with the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx. Hannah is going to Australia to fulfill a study-abroad requirement.

Tara introduced the players and talked about their strengths and accomplishments, starting with the freshmen and ending with the seniors, who all thanked the fans for their support over the years.

The evening also featured a video that highlighted great plays by each team member as well as memorable moments during the season, including the “Got Bounce” music video created by Mel.

Then it was time to announce the team’s choice for the Lizard Lung Award, a light-hearted tradition honoring the team’s most gullible player. It was presented to Chiney by last year’s winner, Hannah, joined by other previous winners Jeanette, Sarah and Bobbie.

Tara wrapped up the evening by praising the team for its courage and “the emotional energy that went into this season.” Looking ahead, she said she’s excited about the six freshmen who will join the team this coming fall.

“The seniors have set such a high bar” that was learned from others before them. Therefore, she urged the returning players to continue that tradition with their new teammates. “Returnees (are the) keepers of the culture,” she said.

With that, she reminded the returnees that they had a 7:15 a.m. workout the next day – time to start looking forward to 2011-12.