Taming the Tigers of the Big XII

With nearly a week now for Cardinalmaniacs to bemoan the sixth-seed slam from the NCAA Selection Committee, it's time to turn our attention to the opening round at hand for Stanford. The Card open the 2004 NCAA Women's Tournament Saturday against an up-tempo Tiger team from Missouri that has a bevy of talents, including fab forward Evan Unrau...

When NCAA play begins for the Stanford Cardinal on Saturday, March 20 in Tempe, AZ, fans across the nation will see a team seeking respect from fellow coaches and media outlets.  Forgotten are the two NCAA titles and six trips to the Final Four that were achieved from 1990 to 1997.  Instead, the only thing that lingers in the minds of coaches and fans everywhere is the label “underachievers,” as Stanford has failed to advance past the second round in six out of the last seven seasons.  Despite winning this year’s Pac-10 regular season and tournament titles, Stanford earned a surprisingly low sixth seed in the Midwest Regional bracket.  The players know that the only way to gain some respect back is by winning games and advancing to New Orleans, where the Final Four will be held.  And the first step in accomplishing this goal will be to beat the battle-tested Missouri Tigers from the powerful Big XII Conference.

Cindy Stein and her Missouri Tigers will make their second appearance in the NCAA Tournament under her six-year tenure. The only other time a Stein-coached Missouri squad made it to the Big Dance was in 2001. However, they made the most out of their opportunity by upsetting third-seeded Georgia in the second round in the East Regional and getting to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time in school history. Stein is a talented young coach whose teams are known for employing an up-tempo offense while playing tenacious defense. Despite some early injuries to key players this year, Stein has led Missouri to a respectable 17-12 record, including a sixth place finish in the Big XII Conference, the toughest conference in the nation.

The undisputed leader of the Tigers is senior forward Evan Unrau. A native of Fort Collins, CO, Unrau is the Big XII’s most versatile player, as her 6’1” frame allows her to post up inside or step outside and hit the jumper. She runs the floor well and plays great hustle defense. She leads Missouri in scoring and rebounding, at 17.7 points and 9.0 rebounds a game. Unrau also leads the Big XII with 14 double-doubles, including an incredible performance in an overtime loss to Kansas State, where she registered 40 points and 15 rebounds. She will be the primary focus of Stanford’s defensive schemes, as she could conceivably pull of an Allison Feaster-like performance and spoil Stanford’s post-season plans.

While Mizzou relies on Unrau for points and rebounds, the Tigers also look to a strong supporting cast to get the “W” at the end of the game. Stretch James is the agile frontcourt mate of Unrau and she brings athleticism and quickness to the paint. The 6’2” power forward is a former JUCO All-American and has flourished under Stein’s guidance. This season, she is averaging 14.0 points and 6.9 boards. James is also a huge defensive presence in the post as she averages 2.3 blocks a game. Center Megan Roney completes the Tigers' starting post rotation, as she contributes 4.3 points and 3.5 rebounds a game. The 6’3” junior is also a solid shot blocker who runs well down the floor. Missouri’s post depth will increased with the welcome addition of Melanie Fisher. The 6’2” senior was a starter at the beginning of the year, but sustained a back injury on January 31 and hasn’t played since. However, she started practicing with the team again this week, although Stein is not sure if Fisher will get a chance to play against the Cardinal. Fisher is the Tigers' best post defender and having her out on the floor would certainly help against Stanford’s great post players.

The Tigers' backcourt is patrolled by the dynamic and athletic duo of LaToya Bond and MyEsha Perkins. Bond missed five weeks midway through the season with a broken foot, but since returning, the 5’7” point guard has added energy and toughness to the Tiger squad. She leads Missouri in assists, at 4.6 a game, while chipping in 10.5 points a contest. Her quick hands make her a dangerous defender, as she averages a team high 2.0 steals a game. Perkins is a 5’9” guard who is averaging 10.3 points a game and is known to put up points inside as well as outside. She missed the beginning of the season due to academic issues, but has worked her way into the starting line-up. She’s a terrific slasher who can penetrate into the lane for the easy deuce. Perkins is also an excellent three-point shooter, hitting 43.6% of her shots from beyond the arc. Another guard who gives solid minutes off the bench is senior Tracey Lozier, who averages 8.5 points and 3.8 assists a game. She is a solid defender and ballhandler, but her main trademark is her ability to make the three. This season Lozier became Missouri’s all-time record holder for made threes and she hits 1.55 threes a game. Her one downside is that she is a streaky shooter, hitting 32.1% from beyond the arc. However, if Lozier heats up early on in the game, she will be dangerous.

Missouri is a team full of grit and determination. Though they finished only 17-12 for the season, they possessed a strength of schedule that ranked among the nation’s Top 10. As a member of the Big XII Conference, the Tigers were guaranteed to play tough games night-in and night-out. The rough road through the conference has toughened the Tigers and they are eager to pull an upset in the first round. And in order to do so, Stein has to figure out a way to contain Stanford’s Nicole Powell.

The most versatile player in the country, Powell enters the NCAA Tournament with a chip on her shoulder. Although few disagree that she is one of the most talented players to ever don a Cardinal uniform, many wonder if she can lead her team to the promise land and a berth to the Final Four. No matter how many double-doubles Powell accomplishes - no matter how many game winning shots she makes - her legacy will start with how far she took her teams into the Big Dance. Powell will not only be looking to lead her team to New Orleans, but she will be looking to erase doubts in her critics' minds and to cement her legacy at Stanford. The strength behind Powell’s game is her versatility. She is just as comfortable banging down low with the big posts as she is outside the three-point line with the quick guards. She handles the ball like point and rebounds like a center. The numbers she has put up this season is nothing short of staggering. Currently, Powell averages 20 points, 11.1 rebounds, 3.8 assists a game. She also is money from the free throw line, hitting 86.0% of her shots. She is the undisputed leader of the Stanford Cardinal.

While the Mizzou defense may be focusing on Powell, opponents will be quick to learn that there are just as equally talented of players on Stanford’s roster. Stanford is known to have a potent three-point attack and that charge is lead by junior Kelley Suminski. The 5’9” guard out of New Jersey has been inconsistent with her jumper throughout the season, but has come through for the Cardinal when it really matters. Down by 11 to UCLA in the Pac-10 Tournament, Suminski nailed back-to-back three pointers in the second half and provided the Cardinal with the necessary spark to overcome the Bruins. In the last 10 games of the season, Suminski helped Powell shoulder much of the offense load, scoring 13.7 points a game and connecting on 44.2% of her three-point attempts. Susan Borchardt is another offensive threat that can hurt the Tigers either from pulling the trigger on the outside or weaving her way into the paint for the easy bucket. Her quickness allows her to penetrate deep into the paint on offense and shut down her opponents on defense. She’s put up solid numbers the whole year, averaging 8.3 points a content and hitting 43.7% of her threes, second best on the team. Throughout the season, she has been a little hesitant on offense, but if she scores early and often, Stanford will be very difficult to beat. Junior Sebnem Kimyacioglu and sophomore Krista Rappahahn come off the bench to provide Stanford with more three-point specialists. Although Kimyacioglu has not been consistent with her stroke all season, she can make the big shots at any moment and put up points in a hurry. She also brings a lot of intensity to her defense and is regarded as one of Stanford’s best defenders. Rappahahn is a smart player who plays good defense and makes smart decisions with the ball. She also hits 51.9% of her threes, making her a deadly weapon of choice if she is open. As solid as Stanford’s backcourt is, they will also be looking at it’s post players to make huge contributions if Stanford is to win.

Leading the charge for Stanford in the post will be junior T'Nae Thiel. Although she’s an undersized center at 6’1”, Thiel makes up for her lack in size with excellent basketball fundamentals and a bruising style of play. Thiel thrives on contact and does not shy away from a few bumps and bruises. She is mainly known for her great post defense, but in recent weeks, she has contributed to the offensive load. She can score in transition or hit the long jumper. Freshman Kristen Newlin has been a welcome addition to the Cardinal squad this year. The combination of size and athleticism that Newlin displays gives Stanford a dimension that has been missing in recent years. She sometimes starts out tentatively in games, but has been known to turn on the aggression when the game is on the line and this is where Newlin does her damage. Newlin uses her long arms to her advantage, either swatting the ball away or using her long arms to snatch rebounds. She leads the team in blocks (48 on the season) and is second in rebounding (5.7 per game). Offensively, Newlin has a variety of moves around the basket and can also face up the basket and hit jumpers. How Newlin plays will be a strong indicator of how far Stanford advances in the tournament. Juniors Azella Perryman and Chelsea Trotter round out Stanford’s group of post players, as they have provided Stanford with solid minutes off the bench. Both are hard-nosed players who are aggressive on both ends of the floor.

Both teams are gunning for respect. Stanford wants to prove that there are good basketball teams west of the Mississippi, and Missouri wants to show that they deserve an invite to the Big Dance, despite finishing in seventh place in the Big XII Conference. Fans will tout Saturday’s game a Powell vs. Unrau showdown, but ultimately, the stronger supporting cast will win the ball game.

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