March 29, 2012

Two wins make for fun in Fresno

It wasn’t easy, but the Stanford women’s basketball team won both of its Fresno regional games and earned a trip to Denver for its fifth consecutive Final Four.

The wins were 76-60 over South Carolina on March 24 and 81-69 over Duke on March 26, both at Save Mart Center on the Cal State Fresno campus.

Because Fresno is relatively close to the Bay Area, many fans drove there. Others opted for the booster bus that made the trip to each game. People wearing Fresno State sweatshirts also flocked to the game. One of them told me he was cheering for Stanford, presumably because it was the only West Coast team still in the NCAA tournament.

Many fans began their pre-game activities with food and refreshments at the Dog House Grill across from the arena. It’s a popular place, so even though the patio was reserved for the fans, they still had to stand in a long line to order their food. Those of us who preferred table service went to nearby Buffalo Wings.

Stanford’s semi-final game against South Carolina was preceded by the Duke-St. John’s contest. Both schools appeared to have a fairly good turnout. Four of the most interested observers were Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer along with associate head coach Amy Tucker and assistant coaches Kate Paye and Trina Patterson.

One by one they left during the second half. Shortly before the end of the game, some Stanford players were cheered as they emerged from their locker room and gathered in the tunnel to watch as Duke won 74-47.

When the entire team ran onto the floor, junior forward Mikaela Ruef and freshman guard Alex Green were among them. Rehabbing from injuries, they had not traveled to Los Angeles for the Pac-12 tournament or to Norfolk for the first two NCAA games.

Fans nerd it up

Inspired by the team’s popular “Nerd City” rap video, which was created by senior forward Nneka Ogwumike and sophomore forward Chiney Ogwumike and which features the team along with other Stanford student athletes, many fans were in nerd attire. One fan waved a “Fear the Tree” sign with “Tree” crossed out and replaced by “Nerd.”

Other nerded-up fans included senior guard Lindy La Rocque’s parents, who wore nerd glasses. Sitting in a section by the tunnel, the Stanford women’s water polo team was in full nerd regalia with suspenders, pig tails, taped glasses and beanies. They switched to more conventional sports attire during halftime, when they were honored as the 2011 national champions. Back in their seats, they reverted to nerd mode.

Other students backing the Cardinal were the band – complete with a drummer using flashy sparkle drumsticks -- the Dollies, cheerleaders and the new female version of the Tree. This time she wore black tights rather than the red fishnet stockings she sported in Norfolk, but she kept the red netting on her costume.

During a timeout close to the end of the first half, she became a part of the cheerleaders’ routine when they hoisted her atop their human pyramid as she shook pompons.

The score was an uncomfortably close 33-30 in the final seconds of that half when junior forward Joslyn Tinkle, catching an inbound pass while standing just in front of the South Carolina bench, heaved a long buzzer beater that raised the score to 36-30. It was the team’s only 3 of the night.

Nneka leads team to victory

The score gradually widened during the second half, ending 76-60. Nneka was the game’s unstoppable heroine, scoring 39 points, more than half of the team’s total. She also had 10 rebounds, and one each in the assist, block and steal columns.

Also in double figures were sophomore guard Toni Kokenis with 12, plus seven rebounds, three assists and two steals. Despite playing with a brace on her right knee, which she had bruised in Norfolk, Chiney logged 11 points, 10 rebounds, three assists, four blocks and two steals. The only bench player to score was freshman forward Bonnie Samuelson, who came in to successfully shoot two free throws for Chiney, who had fallen and gone to the bench. She did return, though.

Two days later, it was time to play Duke. Before going to the arena, the team was treated to a sendoff by the band, cheerleaders, Dollies, Tree, fans and family at the team hotel. Among the fans were the parents of former assistant coach Bobbie Kelsey, who’s now head coach at the University of Wisconsin.

The players and other students were in high spirits as the Tree high-fived some fans and the players borrowed the cheerleaders’ pompons during one song. Just before playing “All Right Now,” the band chanted, “Just three more games.”

When the band plays “All Right Now,” it often weaves in themes from other songs as varied as “Jesus Christ Superstar,” the “Phantom of the Opera” theme and even “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Fittingly, one of the songs this time was “Luck Be a Lady Tonight” from “Guys and Dolls.”

As the team walked toward its bus, Joslyn ran over to hug her dad, Wayne, men’s basketball coach at the University of Montana.

Fans then got into their cars and headed for the arena. Some went to the gathering at the Dog House Grill, where the band played. Others went directly to the arena to wait for tickets that they had bought through Stanford. Once inside, they sought their seats and food. One popular item was ice cream made at Fresno State.

While attendance on the first day was 3,754, it dwindled only slightly to 3,445 – no doubt a testament to the large turnout of Stanford fans.

Some fans had expressed their concerns about playing Duke, but Tara and her staff came up with a solid game plan that put Stanford ahead 40-25 at the half and 81-69 at the final buzzer.

Stanford makes 7 from beyond the arc

Unlike the South Carolina game with its lone 3-pointer, this one had seven, thanks to Joslyn with three, and Toni, freshman guard Amber Orrange, freshman forward Taylor Greenfield and Lindy with one each.

Once again Nneka led her team with 29 points, plus nine rebounds, three assists and a steal. Joslyn and Amber had 13 points each, while Chiney had 12. Chiney led the team in rebounding, snaring 17.

As the game went into its final minutes, Tara gradually cleared the bench, allowing everyone to log some time. By then the crowd was already cheering, even though Duke continued to press and foul. Duke’s last foul sent senior guard Grace Mashore to the free-throw line, where she made both shots, setting off even louder cheering by the crowd and her teammates.

There were hugs and smiles and more hugs all around after the final buzzer, and the players happily donned their regional championship hats and T-shirts.

Next came the trophy presentation and announcement of the all-tournament team, led by Chiney and Nneka, the most valuable player. Then the traditional net-cutting got under way, starting with the freshmen and progressing through the classes and staff. In the meantime, the players hugged the Dollies, Tara gave a thumbs-up to the band, and Joslyn briefly led the band.

The net-cutting ended with Tara. She snipped the final strands, held the net high for all to see, then tossed it to Nneka, who draped it around her neck.

As the players and staff left the floor, Tara carefully carried the trophy.

Then for the fans, it was time to return to their hotels or drive home. The team returned to Palo Alto that night.

Next stop – Denver and Baylor.

March 21, 2012

Sweet sojourn to Virginia

They may have been 3,000 miles and three time zones away from Stanford, but the women’s basketball team made itself right at home for its first two games in the NCAA tournament. The Cardinal defeated Hampton University 73-51 on March 17 and followed up with a 72-55 win over West Virginia University on March 19.

Thus the Cardinal advanced to the Sweet 16 and earned the right to play the next game (or two) in Fresno, much closer to home.

The Ted Constant Center at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., drew an announced crowd of 4,258 for the Texas-West Virginia and Stanford-Hampton games on March 17. Many of those in the crowd were cheering for Hampton, which is quite close to ODU.

There was a smattering of Stanford fans along with relatives of players and coaches, including head coach Tara VanDerveer, who has a sister and other relatives nearby; and assistant coach Trina Patterson, who has brothers and others in the area. I also talked to a Stanford grad who lives in the area and recalls seeing strength and conditioning coach Susan King Borchardt, ’05, when she played at Stanford.

The Stanford contingent also included the band, Dollies, cheerleaders and Tree. No doubt the distance, logistics and expense limited the turnout of other fans.

There was a scare early in the first half when sophomore forward Chiney Ogwumike fell awkwardly and limped off the floor to see trainer Marcella Shorty. She spent some time in the locker room, but returned to limited action, logging only 14 minutes of playing time.

The score was 42-27 at halftime. Junior forward Joslyn Tinkle then widened the Stanford lead with two consecutive 3-pointers. With slightly less than 15 minutes to go, the score was 54-32, with Chiney (6 points) and her sister, senior forward Nneka Ogwumike (26), together accounting for as many points as Hampton had scored.

Chiney finished the game with 9 points, while Nneka had a team-high 28, followed by Joslyn with 16, sophomore guard Toni Kokenis with 9 and freshman guard Amber Orrange with 7. The only other player to score was senior forward Sarah Boothe, who chipped in 4 points. Also noteworthy were Amber’s 11 assists and Nneka’s 10 rebounds.

Two days later, the team had a pregame sendoff from its waterfront hotel, where Stanford banners hung in the lobby and stars with the names of the players and staff adorned tiles in front of the entrance.

Some fans, family, the band, cheerleaders and Dollies were there along with a new-look Tree. At first I was a surprised at the red fishnet stockings and red netting like a half-tutu (would that be a tu?) until a longtime fan explained that this was next year’s Tree, a woman. She also said that the very first tree also was a woman. The present Tree, a man, had returned to Stanford to back the men’s team, which was hosting and playing in the NIT.

After a short serenade, the band and players began chanting “Five more games.” Then during “All Right Now,” the seniors – Nneka, Sarah and guards Lindy La Rocque and Grace Mashore – led their teammates to the waiting bus, which got a police escort to the game. The bus was already loaded with their luggage because they were to fly back after the game – finals week was upon them.

With Hampton out, attendance for the March 19 game dropped by more than half to 2,055.

Besides the 72-55 win and advancement to the Fresno regional, the West Virginia game was notable for the Stanford guards’ outstanding contributions. In news stories before the game, much was made of West Virginia’s physical style of play, implying that Stanford’s forwards would get a lot of attention.

Tara and her staff had an answer. Rather than trying to get the ball inside to Nneka, Chiney or another big, it appeared that many plays called for the guards to penetrate and shoot. Consequently, Amber finished with a team-high and career-high 18 points to go with seven rebounds, five assists, a steal and no turnovers.

Toni pitched in with 10 points plus five rebounds, two assists and three steals. Lindy came off the bench to add 4 points, a rebound and an assist. Like Amber, neither had a turnover.

Not to be overlooked, though, the bigs still played their part. Nneka had 16 points, while Chiney had 13, Joslyn 9 and Sarah 2.

As I was strolling along the concourse during the half (when Stanford led 38-21), I heard a woman with a WVU sweatshirt say, “All I see is tall white jerseys,” a testament to the Cardinal’s height advantage.

And as is common when Stanford plays teams from other parts of the country, people came up to Cardinal fans and asked about the Tree’s significance. We also had to explain to some that Cardinal represents the color, not the bird.

Now it’s time to take that color to Fresno and a contest with South Carolina.

March 12, 2012

Three days, three wins in LA

The Stanford women’s basketball team left Los Angeles on March 10 as the Pac-12 tournament champions after winning three games in three days. Thus the team extended its winning streak to 28 games, a school record. It also extended its conference winning streak to 78 games and its overall season record to 32-1.

In addition, senior forward Nneka Ogwumike received a trophy as the tournament’s most outstanding player, and both she and sister Chiney, a sophomore forward, were named to the all-tournament team.

Here are some highlights from the tournament:

March 8 – Stanford 76, Washington 57

A handful of fans and family members began their day by joining the band, Dollies, cheerleaders and Tree in a sendoff at the Downtown Marriott Hotel. Nneka was the first player to get there, accompanied by freshman guard Amber Orrange.

As we waited for more players to arrive, a hotel guest watching the festivities said she’s from Colorado, but she hopes to see Stanford in Denver for the Final Four.

When the band began playing “All Right Now,” the team’s freshmen watched the returning players to learn the moves to the song. Then the players, coaches and staff trooped to the waiting bus to go to the Galen Center at USC.

The noon game drew a sparse crowd, maybe 300 or 400 by my guesstimation, with most of the fans wearing Stanford red. The fans included Jeanette Pohlen, ’11; classmate and former team manager Kerry Blake; and Jeanette’s mother.

In a departure from custom, the band sang rather than played the anthem for the team’s entry. Junior forward Mikaela Ruef and freshman guard Alex Green, who have had injuries, weren’t with the team. However, freshman guard Jasmine Camp, who is rehabbing from surgery, was there. Mikaela tweeted that she had undergone surgery the previous day.

Freshman forward Taylor Greenfield and senior forward Sarah Boothe, who had both missed some games with injuries, got some playing time. Taylor contributed two rebounds while Sarah had a rebound, an assist and a block.

Going into the second half, when Stanford led 37-24, the cheerleaders got a group of school kids chanting, “Let’s go, Stanford.” Later one of the boys got to play tambourine with the band during a timeout.

Nneka led the scoring with 18 points, plus seven rebounds, four assists and a block. Chiney was right behind with 16 points, 11 rebounds, two assists and a block. No one played more than 28 minutes (guard Toni Kokenis), and everyone got into the game.

The team had five 3-pointers, courtesy of freshman forward Bonnie Samuelson with three and senior guard Lindy La Rocque with two.

The next game featured Arizona State versus Arizona, with the winner of that game advancing to play Stanford the next day. Therefore, the Stanford coaches sat at tables behind one of the benches to scout the next day’s opponent. About four minutes into the game, Stanford players began to trickle in, sitting with family members or friends until shortly before the half, when they all sat together in a corner section. They left at the half, but the coaches stayed.

March 9 – Stanford 52, Arizona State 43

This day began much the same as the previous day with family members and a few fans on hand for the sendoff from the hotel.

As some of the Stanford players visited with parents in the lobby, the Cal team arrived from a practice. Meantime, the band, cheerleaders, Dollies and Tree were performing just outside. “The band’s waiting,” Eileen Roche, director of basketball operations, told the players, who then went outside.

Nneka danced as the band played, senior Grace Mashore’s father took pictures, and some hotel guests watched. Just after the Stanford entourage left, the ASU band lined up to give its team a sendoff.

At the noon game in the Staples Center, another group of school kids arrived waving red and white pompons and wearing red headbands that were being handed out at a Verizon Wireless booth in the concourse.

During halftime, when Stanford led ASU 29-15, Stanford fan Bob Dodge won a dance contest while he wore one of those headbands, red beads from a Final Four and a black T-shirt reading, “Where there’s a Wiggins, there’s a way,” a memento from of the 2008 NCAA tournament run to the Final Four led by Candice Wiggins,’08.

ASU began closing the gap in the second half, getting it to within 6 points with a minute left, but Nneka made six of six free throws and junior forward Joslyn Tinkle added two more FTs and snared the final rebound to give the team its 52-43 win. As the team left the floor, Joslyn turned to the Stanford fans, wiped her brow and mouthed, “Whew.”

She echoed the sentiments of the fans, who had just witnessed one of the team’s least impressive efforts of the season. Stanford shot only 29.4 percent for the game (ASU shot 29.8 percent) and missed all 10 of its 3-point attempts.

Luckily, Stanford was more successful with free throws, making 22 of 27, while ASU, made six of eight. Once again Nneka led the team in scoring with 24 points, which included 10 for 10 tries at the charity stripe. She also had 12 rebounds, four assists, two blocks and three steals in 39 minutes

Chiney had 12 points and 13 rebounds to go with one steal in 38 minutes. Toni, who played all 40 minutes, had six points, six rebounds, three assists and three steals. Because the game stayed so close, only eight players got onto the floor.

Later in the afternoon, about 20 fans and some family members gathered at Big Wang’s sports bar for a post-game social.

March 10 – Stanford 77, Cal 62

Once again the band, Dollies, Tree and cheerleaders assembled for the sendoff, this time to the championship game, at Staples. This sendoff attracted a larger group of family and fans, perhaps because it was a Saturday. Joined by both of her parents, Jeanette was there again, wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with “Forever S.” Kerry was there, too.

As the team arrived in the lobby, Bonnie and her two younger sisters posed for pictures taken by their dad as their mom looked on.

Once outside, the team was more animated than usual. During one song, Nneka danced, Chiney played the bass drum, and Joslyn led the band. Toni, who joined the band for home football games, was in the back row playing a mellophone while sophomore guard Sara James pretended to play a trumpet.

Those players then rejoined their teammates for a chorus line and some back-and-forthing with the band.

The crowd was somewhat larger but still sparse for the 11:30 a.m. game. Once again, fans in red seemed to be in the majority.

Like the Washington and ASU games, this was a physical contest, resulting in 16 fouls for Cal and 19 for Stanford. However, Stanford was better able to cash in, making 14 of 16 free throws, or 87.5 percent, while Cal made 15 of 25, or 60 percent.

As she did in the other two games, Nneka led her team with 29 points. What makes that total especially memorable is that she made her first 3-pointers of the season. In fact, she made three of four, setting the crowd aroar. Nneka also had 12 rebounds, one assist, two blocks and three steals in 36 minutes.

Chiney had 17 points and 13 rebounds for her third double-double of the tournament. She also had an assist and a block 34 minutes.

Amber made significant contributions with 13 points, three rebounds, three assists and two steals. Completing the scoring, Joslyn and Toni had 9 points each, including one 3-pointer each. Everyone got into the game, but only the five starters scored.

After the game, there were smiles and hugs all around as the team celebrated its championship by donning the traditional T-shirts and hats. Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott presented the tournament trophy to head coach Tara VanDerveer, who held it up before giving it to Nneka to show the team.

The net-cutting was next. Tara climbed the ladder last, snipped off the last strands and held the net aloft in a pose that has become happily familiar to Stanford fans. Descending the ladder, she handed the net to Nneka, who draped it around her neck.

To conclude the ceremony, Nneka received her trophy as most outstanding player, and she and Chiney were named to the all-tournament team.

Next up: the NCAA tournament.

March 6, 2012

Cardinal cruise to victory over Cal

Riding the booster bus to Berkeley on March 4, 39 fans of Stanford women’s basketball enjoyed cookies and the radio broadcast of the Stanford-Cal men’s game at Maples. Cheers broke out when that game ended with a Stanford win, 75-70.

After their women had squeaked out a 3-point OT win over Cal in January, the bus riders said that the men’s victory was a good omen. They also talked about the fact that head coach Tara VanDerveer and her team wouldn’t succumb to the upset bug that had bit so many top-ranked teams in the past few days.

They were right. Stanford took charge and won the game handily, 86-61, thanks to a balanced scoring attack and tough defense. Thus Stanford won its 25th consecutive game of the season and its 75th consecutive conference game.

Arriving at Haas Pavilion about 45 minutes before the 6 p.m. tipoff, the riders became part of a large contingent of fans wearing red. Those of us who had reserved seats above the Stanford bench were joined by former Stanford greats Jayne Appel and Ros Gold-Onwude, both ’10, along with Kayla Pedersen, ’11, who were seated with the team’s family members and friends just behind the bench.

The Stanford band sat in a high corner of the gym. One of the trombone players whom I passed in the hall said the musicians had played for the men’s game, then hopped on their own bus for Berkeley, joined by the Dollies, but not the Tree or cheerleaders.

About a half-hour before tipoff, senior forward Nneka Ogwumike, as she usually does, came out to get balls for the team’s entrance. She was greeted by cheers that grew even louder when she was joined by forward Sarah Boothe, who was in uniform for the first time after missing several games with an injury. She smiled, waved to the fans and pointed to her uniform, obviously sharing their joy.

Later the fans were happy to see that freshman forward Taylor Greenfield also was in uniform after missing two games. Neither she nor Sarah played, but it was good to know they’re available, especially when the team faces the prospect of three games in three days at the Pac-12 tournament in Los Angeles this week.

Between the bands and the loud PA system, the noise in Haas was deafening. Luckily, I had my earplugs, but they didn’t stop me from hearing some booing by Cal fans after the Stanford band played “All Right Now.”

However, the Stanford women silenced the crowd fairly quickly as they widened the gap between themselves and the Bears. Sophomore guard Toni Kokenis led the scoring barrage with 23 points (including three 3’s) plus six rebounds and four assists.

Nneka was right behind her with 22 points, nine rebounds, four assists, two blocks and three steals. Next came junior guard Joslyn Tinkle with 16 points (including two 3’s), four rebounds, one assist, five blocks and one steal.

Sophomore forward Chiney Ogwumike had the only double-double with 12 points, 12 rebounds, two assists and three blocks. Freshman Bonnie Samuelson provided a spark off the bench with 9 points from three 3’s, plus two rebounds and two assists.

The two teams were even in rebounds with 41 each and turnovers with 12 each. Stanford held the edge in assists, 17-10, and blocks, 10-5. Stanford committed 15 fouls to Cal’s 21, giving the Stanford a chance to make 24 of 27 free throws, while Cal made only 10 of 21. Cal had nine steals to Stanford’s 5.

There were some anxious moments late in the second half when a Cal player inadvertently gave Toni a bloody nose and sent her to the bench. Not long after, though, both she and trainer Marcella Shorty were smiling, and Toni gave a thumbs-up to her mother and brother, who were seated nearby.

As the Stanford boosters returned to their bus and took their seats, they joined in as one woman started singing, “If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands.”

March 1, 2012

Fitting farewell to Maples

The seniors on the Stanford women’s basketball team had had their formal recognition a few days earlier, but they and their teammates added an exclamation point in their final home game by defeating Seattle University 76-52 on Feb. 29.

It was a nonconference game with a team that’s transitioning into Division 1. Nevertheless, the Redhawks gave Stanford a more competitive game than the score might suggest because of their solid defense and quickness. Thus the score was even, 18-18, when it came to turnovers.

In the end, though, the Seattle visitors were no match for the likes of senior forward Nneka Ogwumike, who had 19 points, 11 rebounds, two assists, one block and one steal. Nor could they contain sophomore forward Chiney Ogwumike, who was close behind her older sister with 18 points, eight rebounds and one steal.

Then there were the 14 points (including two 3’s), six rebounds, two assists, one block and two steals from junior forward Joslyn Tinkle. And freshman point guard Amber Orrange had herself a good night, recording 10 points, five rebounds, nine assists, one block and one steal.

Freshman forward Bonnie Samuelson came off the bench to contribute 12 points thanks to four 3-pointers (three of them consecutive), plus one rebound. Senior guard Lindy La Rocque had the team’s other 3, plus two assists and a steal.

Thus the team extended its home winning streak to 79 games. That means the class of 2012 is the second consecutive group of seniors to toss out victory balls after every one of their home games.

Even though it wasn’t an official senior night, the team and head coach Tara VanDerveer honored two seniors who have played an important role in the team’s success. They were practice players Austin Link and Paul Ockelman.

It also was a night to recognized longtime fans. With 14:36 to go in the first half, people who’ve been attending the games for at least 10 years were asked to stand. Well over half the crowd of 3,379 got to their feet and were applauded.

When those with at least 20 years of attendance stood for recognition in the second half, there still were a sizable number of standees. Even those with at least 30 years were an impressive contingent.

The crowd also included football coach David Shaw and his children, who were shown on the video board during the first half.

Halftime highlights included introduction of the softball team, ranked 10th in the nation, and a performance by the stamping, clapping, six-woman Stanford Steppers.

Fans got a preview of what might happen some years into the future when the Tree was joined by a crowd-pleasing mini Tree during a second-half timeout. “You can’t start training ’em too young,” announcer Betty Ann Boeving said.

Nneka received a standing ovation when she went to the bench for the final time with 5:02 left. Senior guard Grace Mashore also was cheered when she entered the game with 2:23 to go.

After the game, the crowd was treated to a video with highlights from the season, ending with “Thank You Seniors.” With that, Betty Ann signed off from her 13th season at the microphone.

The Fast Break Club convened in Kissick Auditorium to hear from Seattle coach Joan Bonvicini, who said, “Tara and her staff have done a fabulous job.” As for the Ogwumikes, “They’re the real deal,” she said, adding kudos for Amber. She said the team has a good chance to go to its fifth consecutive Final Four.

Formerly the head coach at the University of Arizona, Joan is familiar with Stanford, noting that attention to detail and high-achieving players help the team.

On the other hand, “Seattle University is a fabulous school. … I have really good kids,” she said, adding that she does a lot of her recruiting in California. One of her recruits for next year was a ball girl for Stanford.

Now in her third year at Seattle, she’s looking forward to its becoming a Division 1 team and a member of the Western Athletic Conference next season.

Besides coaching against Tara when she was at Arizona, Joan played against her in college. “I love coming to Stanford. You guys have built something classy. … We tried our best.”

She praised Scott Rueck, who became head coach at Oregon State last season when the team was struggling. She noted that it’s hard to play in the Pac-12 because all teams are measured against Stanford.

She then was joined by Tara, who called her a great coach and a great friend. “I was very impressed with how your team played,” Tara said. “It was a great game for us.”

Tara called Nneka “a great leader and a great person” and added that Joslyn “is doing some really nice things,” such as leading the Pac-12 in free throw percentage.

The two coaches then engaged in some friendly banter before ending the session.

Next up: At Cal on Sunday and in Los Angeles for the Pac-12 tournament next week.