In their first "big stage, bright lights", nationally televised game of the season, Stanford lost to UConn at the XL Center this past Monday, 68-58. The game started out sloppy on both sides but eventually the Huskies began to execute, UConn frosh Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis(the 2010-11 national high school player of the year) began to heat up, and Nnemkadi (Nneka) Ogwumike battled early foul trouble. Now, one day removed, lets all take a deep breath (I'll wait… "breathes in, breathes out") and take a calm and composed look at what did and didn't happen.
"Be the best in March"
Regardless of who won Monday's game both of these teams still have a long way to go before becoming a national championship contender. That's the objective of these tough early preseason games - to gauge where you are at. Tara VanDerveer said something to our team that I've found to be 100% true: "The most important thing about November is what you learn and how much you improve". Allow me to take you back almost exactly four years to the date, the Paradise Jam tournament in St. Thomas, V.I. in 2007. We lost to UConn 66-54 (don't let the final score fool you, we were down by as much as 26). Tara and crew analyzed that game, then we practiced until we got better and fixed the weaknesses UConn had earlier exposed. That very same year we beat the Huskies in the Tampa Final Four semi-final game. Moral of the story: It's most important to be the best come March/April.
We're Young/ First "Big Stage" Game
UConn played seven people (I am not going to count Brianna Banks, who played just five minutes). 154 of the 200 minutes available for playing time went to players with at least one full year of major playing-time experience at an elite level of women's college hoops. The entire UConn starting five has been in this moment before - albeit with the comfort of the security blanket that was three-time Wade Trophy winner Maya Moore- but nonetheless, that veteran experience matters.
The Triangle takes time.
"T. Veezy" is still running the triangle offense. Last year's team of veterans ran this like a science. It is a great offense for teams that a) know all the options for both strong side and weak side and b) are patient, smart, and can read what the defense is giving them. The triangle offense takes a lot of time and practice just to learn all the different options. It can take some players YEARS to completely understand why to run a specific option or how to take advantage in the most effective way (i.e.: utilizing the right patience or timing). In November, we still look like a team that is working to get comfortable in its motion offense.
What UConn Did on "D"
No surprise here; UConn pressed. Sometimes with a full court player (the goal there is to fluster/look for steals) other times with a three-quarter court zone press (the goal here is to contain - take time off the clock and trap in strategic spots). The constant press never allowed Stanford to get comfortable. Once Stanford got over half court, UConn fell into a pretty aggressive yet thoughtful player defense. They pick up high and turn the guard into one side of the court creating very bad angles. It makes the entry pass to get into the offense very hard to make. The player guarding the ball plays you tight. If you put the ball on the floor they force you baseline into the help-side defense. So for "newbies" to the triangle offense, its tough to run the play when you can't get to your spots, see the pass, or pick up your dribble early enough to get the right timing on passes to cutters. OK, lets play Devil's Advocate. Let's pretend you were able to get into your offense, and that you did hit the "high low" option, or found the timing for the back-door cut option that usually works against "other teams". Now you have the challenge of making the right decision because UConn is SO DARN "help-side aware". They are always there and early. At that point it's up to a Stanford player to pull up, avoid the charge, make the extra pass, or pass out of the double-/triple-team down low (The Ogwumike sisters might benefit from watching old tapes of Jayne Appel passing out of the double). UConn still had no answer for Nneka. But then again, who does?
What UConn Did on "O"
UConn looked further along in their progress than Stanford did at this point of November. They do a great job of drawing the defense out of the paint with four players high or executing on the weak side of the offense for back cuts to the rim or flare screens around the three-point line. The UConn guards, Bria Hartley and Tiffany Hayes in particular, did a good job drawing the defense with penetration and kicking out for threes in both transition and in the half-court set. However, the question many of you might have asked is....
"WHO was guarding Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis"?
The UConn frosh is VERY good, but definitely not the best guard in college hoops right now. Someone or some people are going to have to commit to locking players down. And it's not necessarily a one-person effort. A good defender is only as good as her team's help-side defense. When there is good help-side defense, the on-ball defender can force a player baseline (the goal is to keep penetration out of the middle) into the help. A drive baseline without help D is a basket with a foul. A drive baseline into help D is a bad shot, charge, a travel, or a steal. This is one of the more overlooked areas where the graduated Kayla Pederson will be sorely missed this year. In the past, if an opposing player succeeded in beating one of Stanford's guards, they'd head right into 6'4" Kayla. She was aware of the player driving before the player with the ball even considered it.
THE BRIGHT SPOTS:
After battling from injury she came in as a solid post sub, contributing productivity in points and rebounds. She's a hard worker and you can't argue with her size. She just needs to stay on the floor because in the past she has been foul-prone.
Camp showed she was not afraid of the moment. The freshman came in off the bench and was aggressive without trying to do too much. She made smart passes. She hit open threes. When UConn defenders flew out on her she made good reads and took a quick dribble pull-up jump shot. I have said this before and I'll say it again, Jasmine has a lot of emotional and mental characteristics that I think will help her be successful in this program. I hope this performance translates to more playing time for her.
Toni is fast. She handles the ball best when moving north to south as opposed to east/west. She uses her speed to beat defenders very well and I was excited to see a Stanford player attacking the basket. However, if you drive past your defender for a semi-contested layup and don't come away with the bucket or at least a foul you've just given the defense what it wants. A quick missed shot. Toni's aggressiveness is the bright spot the next step for improvement is after she beats the first defender, she must make her decisions earlier, before getting too deep into the paint. There were times she drove when she had the penetrate-pitch; times she pulled up when she had the drive to the rack. Of course - it's easy for me to point this out from the comfort of watching the game in my living room. UConn's D doesn't make it easy to make the right choices under pressure with little room and time. And it is also very possible to know what the right decision is, but not know how to execute it at the moment. I can remember a few of my own "why am I doing this?" moments while hopelessly driving into a stout defense.
Nneka cannot foul. Not if Stanford wants to compete in top-level games. When Nneka gets a silly foul early you can consider that equal to a turnover …or worse! She needs to know better than that. But sometimes you can't control the refs and sometimes the refs make ridiculous calls. I thought Nneka did a great job of being a leader off the court and coaching her teammates from the bench. She also kept her head during foul trouble and when she did come back on the floor she was dominant - without hesitation or need to warm up. She is a very emotionally mature player. But still… she can't do it alone.
Stanford needs more than "just Nneka"
I'm calling this a bright spot because that translates to open opportunity. If you can play, help, and want more playing time - the spot is open for the taking. It will be interesting and exciting to see who steps into the light for the Cardinal.
So remember: it's early!
There were a lot of bright spots in the midst of the loss. And more importantly there's a lot to learn and loads of time to improve.
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About the Author: New Bootleg WBB columnist Rosalyn Gold-Onwude played guard for the Cardinal from 2005-2010 and was a team leader on four Final Four teams during her outstanding college basketball career, finishing up as Stanford Women's Basketball's all-time leader in games played (148). In addition to being named to the Pac-10 Defensive Team and being selected All-Pac-10 honorable mention as a senior, the Queens, NY-born Gold-Onwude was named the 2010 Pac-10 Co-Defender of the Year. She can be seen covering various Stanford sports for The Cardinal Channel.
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