March 12, 2015

Nothing but net

Now it can be told. A few days before the start of the Pac-12 women’s basketball tournament in Seattle, I was already imagining the above headline.

Somehow my intuition was correct – that Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer would cut the final strand of the net at KeyArena. Stanford would win the tournament despite being the No. 3 seed, its lowest ever for the event.

The road to that ecstatic net-cutting ceremony on March 8 wasn’t easy. Not at all.

Nail-biting 67-62 win over UCLA

It started with a 67-62 victory over No. 6-seeded UCLA on March 6. The Cardinal were missing the services of sophomore guard Karlie Samuelson, who had suffered a broken finger in the Oregon loss March 1. She then had surgery, ending her season. Her right hand was in a cast and supported in a black sling.

Also unavailable was sophomore forward Kailee Johnson. It was later reported that she had a sore foot.

Starters for this game were senior guard Amber Orrange, sophomore guard Lili Thompson, freshman guard Brittany McPhee, senior forward Bonnie Samuelson and sophomore forward Erica “Bird” McCall.

The Cardinal led most of the way, but things got uncomfortably tight as UCLA pulled to within 1 point, 63-62 with only 20.7 seconds left. That’s when the referees took a few minutes at the monitor to determine possession.

The ball went to Stanford. UCLA fouled Bonnie, who hit both of her free throws with 14 seconds left, making the score 65-62. UCLA missed a 3-pointer with 4 seconds to go before fouling Lili, who hit both of her free throws to ice the win.

Amber led the team with 18 points, followed by Lili with 14 and Bird with 10. Bird also had eight rebounds. Freshman forward Kaylee Johnson had seven and Lili six.

UCLA outrebounded the Cardinal 48-34, but Stanford had the advantage in assists, 12-9; blocks, 7-3; and turnovers, 7 Stanford, 12 UCLA. Each team had 13 fouls, and each made 11 free throws.

A big difference was in 3-pointers, 6-3. Lili and Amber each added two, while Bonnie and senior forward Taylor Greenfield had one each.

UCLA had reached this quarter-final game by defeating No. 11 Arizona in the first round March 5.

Payback against Arizona State

Next up for Stanford on March 7 were the No. 2-seeded Arizona State Sun Devils, which had defeated No. 7 Washington State on March 6. WSU had advanced after defeating No. 10 Oregon. ASU had beat Stanford twice during the season.

A fan gathering and sendoff at the team’s Westin Seattle hotel downtown preceded the game. It began with an informal chalk talk by Eileen Roche, director of basketball operations, in the lobby. She noted that ASU head coach Charli Turner Thorne is a Stanford WBB alum, class of 1988.

When Eileen was an assistant coach for Tara’s predecessor, Dottie McCrea, Stanford was recruiting Charli, so Eileen made her first home visit to Charli and her family. (Eileen was a Stanford coach from 1982 to 1985. Dottie coached the Cardinal from 1976 to 1985.)

“Charli was a tenacious player, and her teams have always reflected that,” Eileen said.

She substitutes liberally, so “they’re going to be all over us. You’ll see a lot of motion.” ASU has “good, big posts”; therefore, “we’ve got to keep our driving up. We have to run and keep the bigs off the boards.” It’s going to be a tough game, she said.

Fans then moved outside, where the band, Dollies, cheerleaders and Tree were entertaining the smiling, dancing players. This Tree was a more traditional evergreen type rather than the palm seen during the regular season. It also was a girly Tree with a woman dancing beneath the outfit.

Two hours later, Eileen’s prediction of a tough game proved to be uncomfortably accurate. The Cardinal eked out a 59-56 victory that again kept fans biting their nails until the final buzzer.

Once again the starters were Amber, Lili, Brittany, Bonnie and Bird. Kailee was back in uniform.

Amber had scored all of the team’s points at the 13:55 mark, when Stanford led 12-6. It led 29-25 at the half. By then, Amber had poured in 15 points, while Taylor had 9.

Halftime entertainment featured the mesmerizing Veniamin – The Human Slinky. Attired in a coiled, multi-colored costume, this flexible, one-man wonder transformed himself into multiple permutations – up, down, sideways – just like a four-limbed Slinky. It was one of the more unusual feats I’ve seen.

As the second half got under way, Taylor joined starters Amber, Lili, Bonnie and Bird. Stanford had a fairly comfortable 48-35 lead at the11:08 mark, but had amassed 10 fouls to ASU’s one.

The lead kept shrinking until it was down to 57-56 with 39.5 seconds left. At 28.7 seconds, referees spent several minutes at the monitor to determine possession after the ball went out of bounds. They ruled in Stanford’s favor.

That’s when ASU began taking advantage of the wide discrepancy in fouls. Each time Stanford inbounded the ball, ASU would foul, forcing another inbounds play in hopes of a turnover. The clock wound down to 20.2 seconds when ASU, now with six fouls, forced Bonnie and the ball out of bounds.

ASU got the ball and took a shot, but Kaylee blocked it. She was fouled and made her first free throw and missed the second, but Taylor rebounded it. She was fouled, and made her free throw to clinch the game at 59-56.

As fans were leaving after the game, Taylor’s parents and Amber’s parents and sister were in the concourse watching a monitor with the Pac-12 Network’s recap. Amber came running out to get huge hugs from her family before returning to her teammates to watch part of the Cal-Colorado game.

The Orranges and Greenfields had every right to be proud of their daughters. Amber had a game-high 18 points, followed by Taylor with 17. Amber also had three rebounds and two each for assists, steals and blocks in 36 minutes. Taylor had three rebounds and one assist in 30 minutes.

Kaylee had a team-high 10 rebounds plus 3 points and a career-high five blocks. The team’s nine blocks were a season high (eight previously).

The team had eight 3’s, compared with ASU’s four. Bonnie, Taylor and Amber had two each, while Lili and sophomore guard Briana Roberson had one each. Bonnie’s two 3’s brought her up to 225 for her career, tying her for 10th place in the Pac-12.

Perhaps the biggest head-scratcher for Stanford fans was the disparity in fouls. The refs called 21 on Stanford, while ASU got only 13 whistles, many of them deliberate in the final seconds.

One more game note – Stanford was in its red road uniforms for the first time in a Pac-12 tournament because it was a lower seed than ASU. Seeding didn’t matter in the end, though.

Battle of the Bay – Round 3

The championship game against No. 4 seed Cal on March 8 was even more suspenseful, a 61-60 win in a fight to the finish.

Once again, fans gathered at the team hotel for a chalk talk by Eileen and a team sendoff.

This game is, “going to be a challenge for our youngsters in the post,” Eileen said. Part of the game plan is to take away Cal’s strengths. “We’re going to try to stop them in transition,” she said.

She called the Stanford-Cal matchup, “a tremendous rivalry. We’re honorable opponents.”

Referring to Taylor’s strong showing in the ASU game, Eileen said, “We’re so happy” about her. Eileen also mentioned that the team would be back in its white home uniforms and would use the Seattle Storm’s locker room. The WNBA team plays its home games at Key Arena. Its mascot, Doppler, was on hand for the Pac-12 games.

As the Cal band watched, the Stanford band, etc., entertained the team. A sousaphone player had taped a red “Go Stanford” sign across the top of its bell. The band then chanted, “After tonight, we’ll be the champs,” before launching into “All Right Now.” That’s when the Cal band began playing in an attempt to drown out the Stanford musicians.

Cal had reached the final game by defeating No. 5 Washington on March 6 and No. 9 Colorado on March 7. Colorado had advanced after upsetting No. 1 seed Oregon State on March 6.

Before the game started, the video board noted that Stanford was 36-3 all time in the tournament. Now make that 37-3.

Starting the victorious effort were Amber, Lili, Brittany, Bonnie and Bird.

Stanford had an immediate advantage over Cal because it had played the earlier game the night before, giving it more rest than Cal on a night when clocks moved up an hour to Daylight Saving Time.

Perhaps another difference-maker came less than 5 minutes into the first half when Brittany inadvertently collided with Cal’s star point guard Brittany Boyd, sending her to the locker room with a cut below her eye.

Boyd returned with a bandage on her cheek with 2:22 to go in the first half and Cal ahead 24-20. She wound up playing 27 minutes but had only 7 points. Forward Reshanda Gray, another Cal star, played only 29 minutes because of foul trouble. She wound up with 6 points.

In the meantime, Taylor was on her way to a career-high, game-high 20 points, while Lili had 13 and Amber had 12.

Kaylee finished with 12 rebounds, giving her 17 10-plus rebound games for the season. She had 7 points and two blocks in 28 minutes.

At the half, Stanford was down 25-23. Each team had seven fouls, and Taylor and Lili had 8 points each.

Taylor scored the first of the team’s three 3-pointers early in the second half to give Stanford a 26-25 edge. She had another 3 later, as did Bonnie.

Stanford maintained a lead no higher than 6 points throughout that half. With 8.4 seconds left, the lead was 61-57, so Cal’s final 3-pointer left it 1 point short of forcing overtime.

Time to celebrate

And with that, Stanford fans and players could celebrate. The players rushed onto center court, where they received championship T-shirts and hats. When the PA system played, “We Are the Champions,” they gathered in a circle hug.

When the all-tournament team was named, Amber was among the five for the second time (also in 2013). In addition to her 12 points, Amber had a career-high six steals, tying for most steals for a championship game. She also had four assists in her 38 minutes.

Taylor was named the Most Valuable Player and received a curving, blue glass trophy. A similar but larger trophy was presented to Tara for the team’s 11th tournament championship.

After a shower of multi-colored confetti, it was time to cut down the nets, starting with freshman guard Taylor Rooks, who needed some instruction, as did her classmates, Brittany and Kaylee, being new to this ritual. It continued through the classes to the seniors.

As the staff and coaches took their turns, the players were treated to cupcakes. After cutting the net loose, Tara handed it to Taylor, who draped it around her neck.

Taylor was the first non-starter to be named MVP in the tournament’s 14 years. Five other Cardinal players have won the honor: Nicole Powell, ’04; Candice Wiggins, ’08; Kayla Pedersen, ’11; Nneka Ogwumike, ’12; and Chiney Ogwumike, ’14.

Defense was crucial in all three tournament wins, especially in the championship game, when Stanford had an 11-8 advantage in steals and a 4-0 advantage in blocks. The 11 steals tied a season high for the team.

For the tournament, Stanford had a total of 17 steals, while its opponents had a combined 14. The team also had a three-game total of 20 blocks, compared with four for its opponents.

Winning the championship moved Stanford up from 19 to 14 in the AP poll, clinched an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament and boosted its hopes to host the first two rounds with a 4 seed or higher. Everything will become clear after the NCAA selection show at 4 p.m. March 16 on ESPN.

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