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.

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