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.

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