May 6, 2012

Thanks for the memories, Part 3 of 3

After completing the inaugural Pac-12 season with an 18-0 record and a 28-1 record overall, the Stanford women’s basketball team geared up for tournament time, a.k.a. March Madness.

Pac-12 teams compete in LA

It started with the Pac-12 tournament in Los Angeles. Because of its perfect conference record, Stanford was the No. 1 seed and earned a first-round bye before facing Washington on March 8 at Galen Center. A handful of fans and family members, along with the band, cheerleaders, Dollies and Tree, gave the team a sendoff from the Downtown Marriott Hotel.

The game itself drew a sparse crowd, maybe 300 or 400, with most of them in red. Stanford kept them happy with a 76-57 victory. Senior forward Nneka Ogwumike led the team with 18 points, while her sister, sophomore forward Chiney, contributed 16. All 12 available players saw action, including freshman forward Taylor Greenfield and senior forward Sarah Boothe, who both had missed some previous games with injuries.

Arizona State, which had defeated Arizona after Stanford’s game, was the Cardinal’s opponent the next day, March 9, at Staples Center. Once again, there was a sendoff from the team hotel before the game, which ended in a Stanford win, 52-43.

It was hardly a stellar game. Stanford shot 29.4 percent and ASU shot 29.8 percent. Arizona pulled 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 assure the victory. As the team left the floor, Joslyn turned to the Stanford fans, wiped her brow and mouthed, “Whew.”

Nneka had 24 points, including 10 for 10 from the FT line, plus 12 rebounds. Chiney pitched in with 12 points and 13 rebounds. Because the game was 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.

The sendoff before the championship game against Cal at Staples Center on March 10 attracted a larger crowd. While the team usually gets into the spirit of the sendoff, the players were more animated than usual.

During one song, Nneka danced, Chiney played the bass drum and Joslyn led the band. Sophomore guard Toni Kokenis, who had joined the band for home football games, was in the back row playing the mellophone while sophomore guard Sara James pretended to play a trumpet.

Stanford emerged from the game with a 77-62 victory, but it was a physical contest that resulted in 16 fouls for Cal and 19 for Stanford. Stanford was better able to cash in on the fouls, making 14 of 16 free throws, or 87.5 percent, while Cal made 15 of 25, or 60 percent.

As she had done in the two previous 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. She also had 12 rebounds.

Chiney had 17 points and 13 rebounds for her third double-double of the tournament. Freshman point guard Amber Orrange chipped in with 13 points plus three rebounds. Completing the scoring, Joslyn and Toni had 9 each. Everyone got into the game, but only the five starters scored.

After the game, the team donned their championship T-shirts and hats. The tournament trophy was presented to head coach Tara VanDerveer, who held it up before giving it to Nneka to show the team.

Following the traditional net-cutting, Nneka received a trophy as the tournament’s most outstanding player. She and Chiney were named to the all-tournament team.

NCAA action for Stanford starts in Virginia

One week later, the team had received one of four NCAA tournament No. 1 seeds and had traveled three times zones and about 3,000 miles to play in the first two rounds in the Ted Constant Center at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va.

For the first game against nearby Hampton University on March 17, the crowd totaled 4,258. It included a smattering of Stanford fans along with relatives of players and coaches, including Tara, who has a sister and other relatives nearby, and assistant coach Trina Patterson, who has brothers and others in the area.

Stanford chalked up a 73-51 win over Hampton, but there was a scare early in the first half when Chiney 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 and scoring 9 points.

Nneka had a team-high 28, followed by Joslyn with 16, including two consecutive 3-pointers early in the second half. Toni added 9, Amber 7 and Sarah 4.

Before facing West Virginia University two days later, on March 19, 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.

The contingent included a new-look Tree, who sported red fishnet stockings and red netting on the lower branches. A longtime fan explained that this was next year’s Tree, a woman. The present Tree, a man, had returned to Stanford, where the men’s basketball team was hosting and playing in the NIT.

With Hampton out, total attendance dropped by more than half to 2,055, but Stanford fans got to see their team win 72-55.

The game was notable for the guards’ outstanding contributions. News stories before the game had talked about WVU’s physical play, which presumably would focus on Stanford’s bigs.

Tara and her staff came up with a game plan that concentrated on the guards penetrating and shooting rather than trying to get the ball in to Nneka, Chiney or another forward. Consequently Amber finished with a team-high and career-high 18 points to go with seven rebounds. Toni added 10 points and five rebounds, while senior guard Lindy La Rocque came off the bench to add 4 points and a rebound. The three guards had a total of eight assists and no turnovers.

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

The team flew back to the Bay Area right after the game because of finals week.

Two wins make for fun in Fresno

Travel the following week was far less arduous because the team had only a three- or four-hour bus ride to its regional site at the Save Mart Center on the Cal State Fresno campus. However, the games weren’t quite as easy, but still the team won both games and earned the right to go to Denver for its fifth consecutive Final Four.

Because Fresno is relatively close to the Bay Area, many fans drove. Others opted for the booster bus that made the trip to each game. People wearing Fresno State sweatshirts also flocked to the games. Many fans began their pre-game activities with food and refreshments at the Dog House Grill across from the arena.

Stanford’s March 24 game against South Carolina was preceded by the Duke-St. John’s contest, which Duke won 74-47.

When the Stanford team ran onto the floor, junior forward Mikaela Ruef and freshman guard Alex Green were among them. Rehabbing from surgery for injuries, they had not traveled to LA or Norfolk.

Inspired by the team’s popular “Nerd City Kids” rap video, which was created by Nneka and Chiney and which features other Stanford athletes, many fans were in nerd attire. They included the Stanford women’s water polo team in full nerd regalia with suspenders, pig tails, taped glasses and beanies. They switched to more conventional attire for halftime, when they were honored as the 2011 national champions. Back in their seats, they reverted to nerd mode.

Also on hand were the band, cheerleaders, Dollies and the new female Tree. This time she wore black tights rather than red fishnet stockings, but she kept the red netting on her costume.

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

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. Also in double figures were Toni with 12 and Chiney with 11 – despite playing with a brace on her right knee, which she had bruised in Norfolk.
Spirited sendoff before the Duke game

Two days later, on March 26, the team was treated to a sendoff from its hotel before the Duke game. 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.

After the sendoff, some fans went to the gathering at the Dog House Grill, while others went to the arena to pick up their tickets. Once inside, they sought their seats and food. One popular item was ice cream made at Fresno State.

Some fans were worried 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.

Twenty-one points came from 3-pointers, thanks to three by Joslyn and one each by Toni, Amber, Taylor and Lindy. Twenty-nine points came from Nneka, followed by Joslyn and Amber with 13 each and Chiney with 12. Chiney led the team in rebounding with 17.

With the game well in hand in its final minutes and the crowd cheering, Tara cleared the bench. Duke still continued to press and foul. Its last foul sent senior guard Grace Mashore to the free-throw line, where she made both shots, setting off even louder cheers by the crowd and her teammates.

Then came a familiar sight as the players donned regional championship hats and T-shirts and Tara accepted the trophy. Chiney and Nneka were named to the all-tournament team, and Nneka was named most valuable player. Next it was time to cut down the nets before returning to Palo Alto that night.

Stanford proves to be a tough foe for Baylor

Even though their fifth consecutive trip to the Final Four ended with a semi-final loss to eventual champion Baylor, the team and its coaches had many reasons to be proud of their accomplishments in Denver.

For one, the coaches came up with an excellent game plan against 6’8” phenom Brittney Griner and her talented teammates in the semifinal match at the Pepsi Center on April 1. Consequently, the Cardinal held Brittney to only 13 points, compared with Nneka’s 22. Both All-Americans had nine rebounds to lead their teams.

The final score was 59-47 in Baylor’s favor, a 12-point difference. In the championship game on April 3, Notre Dame lost to Baylor 80-61, a 19-point difference, while allowing Brittney to score 26 points and grab 13 rebounds. Stanford had held Baylor to 36.5 percent shooting, while Notre Dame allowed it to shoot 50 percent.

Unfortunately, Stanford shot only 33.3 percent against Baylor, missing many shots that it might ordinarily make. Fouls also hurt Stanford, which made an uncharacteristic 17, compared with Baylor’s nine. Baylor made 19 points on free throws, while Stanford scored 5 – a 14-point disparity.

The score at the half was 25-23 in Baylor’s favor. The game was nip-and-tuck until about midway through the second half, when it began slipping away. Still, a rally seemed possible even though All-American Chiney had fouled out at about the 7:30 mark when Baylor was ahead 46-36.

The score was 50-43 at the 2:51 mark, but Baylor surged ahead. With only a few seconds remaining in her final collegiate game, Nneka went to the bench and hugged the coaches and all of her teammates as the crowd cheered. Another senior, Sarah, scored the team’s final basket.

When Baylor went on to win the championship game, it became the first collegiate team – men’s or women’s – to go 40-0 in the process.

Final Four festivities

There were numerous activities for players and fans even before the first tipoff. One of them was a Stanford pre-game reception and sendoff on the afternoon of April 1 at the historic Brown Palace Hotel, where the team was staying.

More than 300 fans and family members attended the reception, where they could help themselves to food, red Stanford rally towels, team posters, pompons and the now-ubiquitous nerd glasses.

The sendoff began in the hotel’s elegant central atrium. On the main floor, guests were enjoying tea in an open dining area while being serenaded by a classical violinist. Stanford banners hung from balconies.

The violinist took a seat as the band began to play on and in front of the staircase leading up from the main floor. Everyone then moved outside as the team began to arrive and assemble in front of its bus.

Little girls waving pompons danced in front of the team and Tree, and soon Toni and Grace were dancing with the Dollies. As “All Right Now” sounded, the team boarded the bus and left with a police escort.

Most fans arrived in time to catch the Notre Dame-UConn game, which went into overtime after ending 67-67 in regulation time. That’s when the Irish took over and won 83-75.

One last gathering at the spring banquet

The team gathered for one last official get-together, the annual spring banquet, April 18 at the Stanford Faculty Club.

Like the season, which included records such as a 32-game winning streak that was the longest in team history and an ongoing, nation’s best 79-game home winning streak, the banquet set a record with some 320 attendees. Some people had to be turned away because the room was filled to capacity, and even then, some staff members sat at a table on the patio.

The evening was filled with thank-you’s to everyone who had played a role in the team’s successes. It was highlighted by Tara’s introducing each player, starting with the three sophomores and continuing through the two juniors and six freshmen. “The six-pack is a special freshman class. Now is your time to step up,” she told them.

After introducing the coaches, she came to the four seniors, “a great class.” She enumerated each one’s accomplishments and contributions and gave each a chance to respond.

She ended with Nneka, who just two days earlier had been the first pick in the WNBA draft, chosen by the Los Angeles Sparks. “This is a Stanford first,” Tara said.

She recited a long list of Nneka’s other honors, including the Lowe’s Senior Class Award. The team captain’s 2,491 career points at Stanford are second only to Candice Wiggins, ’08.

The lighthearted Lizard Lung Award went to freshman forward Bonnie Samuelson and was presented by Chiney, last year’s winner.

Next the audience was treated to a video that started with the team’s initial workouts in the fall and featured each player in game action. It was packed with season highlights, especially the home win over Tennessee and some unbelievable plays by Nneka.

The evening ended with Tara looking ahead to 2012-13. “We are going to have a great team next year,” she said.

She also talked of maintaining the team’s legacy and the responsibility of the returning players, especially the seniors, to help the incoming freshmen adjust to the Stanford way of playing and conducting oneself on and off the court.

Defenders of the legacy can look at some stats from this 35-2 season: The two losses came by a total of 22 points, an average of 11 points. By contrast, the 35 wins came by a total of 781 points, an average of 22.3. Only four wins were by single digits (USC, Oregon State, Cal and Arizona State), and only one game (Cal) went into overtime.

After basking in the evening’s festivities, the returning players were scheduled for an early-morning workout the next day. The legacy continues.

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