The first of these bookends came in the Final Four semifinal in April 2008 -- Candice Wiggins' last hurrah and a major upset of the No. 1 team in the nation. Only one of the starters (Kayla Pedersen) and one of the key subs (Jeanette Pohlen) in that game were back two and one-half years later for the second bookend, Stanford's 12-point upset win over another No. 1 Connecticut team. Sandwiched between these two games were three losses to UConn, a decisive one in the 2009 national semifinals, and two contested matches in the 2009-2010 season, the last a national championship game. In each of those latter two games, Stanford led at the end of the first half, but could not hold off Connecticut's second half surge.
The two wins are emblematic of the Stanford's women's basketball program: an extremely well-coached team with dedicated, talented players who love the game and embrace the teamwork that makes it work. Let's start with Coach Tara VanDerveer, a woman who described herself (in the post game press conference) as a "little over the top" but who is, beyond question, a coach extraordinaire. VanDerveer studied the game tapes of all fifteen of UConn's prior games in designing a defensive scheme that limited Maya Moore, the best player in the game, to a 5-of-15 shooting game and 14 points total. In the three losses, Moore had never scored fewer than 23 points. The defensive scheme that worked put the tall and athletic Chiney Ogwumike on Moore, but with ample switching and ample minutes for Joslyn Tinkle. Keying the scheme's success was quick help side-defense, making it very difficult for Moore to find her shots.
Van Derveer's offensive design also deserves credit. In last year's championship game, Stanford managed only 53 points against UConn – this time they managed 71 points (while holding UConn under 60). Stanford has had trouble finding its offensive rhythm in the early season, but then began showing more offensive electricity anew, starting with the USF game in mid-December. The offensive scheme involved perimeter shooting, made possible by screens and drives to the basket by both post and perimeter players. Van Derveer's scheme put the players in a position to do what they can do best.
Inspired coaching schemes are needed, but the players have to be there to execute them. They were in both of the bookend wins. The first bookend should be dedicated to Candice Wiggins, who led an ensemble that included Jayne Appel, then-freshman Kayla Pedersen, JJ Hones, Rosalyn Gold Onwude, and Jillian Harmon. That was an extraordinary group. Teamwork, passing, outside shooting, and inspired defense stood out in that April 2008 win. With great team chemistry, that team scored 82 points against UConn, by far the most that any Husky opponent had managed all year. With the exception of Jillian Harmon - still working on her Italian in Europe – all of these players from the 2008 team were there for the final bookend. Candice Wiggins, Jayne Appel, Rosalyn Gold Onwude, and JJ Hones all sat courtside to cheer their mates on for the streak-ending victory against the Huskies.
This year's Stanford team is led by three talented upperclassmen – Jeanette Pohlen, Kayla Pedersen and Nneka Ogwumike. Pohlen's critical role was never more apparent than in the upset win at Maples – Pohlen had a career day in scoring 31 points, making all 10 free throws, grabbing nine boards (to Moore's eight), and dishing out six assists. Pohlen is a determined competitor and she played a game to remember. She was a very good reserve shooting guard her freshman year, but that put her in a position as a "stealth" candidate for one of the best point guards in the nation. The stealth came as she was not a natural point guard and because her dedication and work ethic allowed her to make steady and marked improvements every year that she played. I've never seen a Stanford player who, every year, has improved to the extent Pohlen has. She is now firmly entrenched as one of the best point guards ever to play at Stanford. If last night's performance is any indication, she will be a consensus All-American.
The entire Stanford team played smart and aggressive basketball against UConn. All of the starters and bench players such as Joslyn Tinkle played with heart and head. That's what makes the Stanford team such a class program -- and fun to watch.
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