As the chants of Under-seeded! Under-seeded! filled the Wells Fargo Arena in Tempe, AZ, the Stanford Cardinal gathered at halfcourt, celebrating their second Sweet Sixteen appearance in three years. With players hugging and smiling from ear to ear, it was hard to imagine that just two weeks ago, the very same group of women were filled with gloom and disappointment, as they learned that the NCAA Committee did not take much stock in Stanfords Pac-10 Conference Championship or 24-6 record, thus giving the Cardinal a surprising sixth seed in the Midwest Regional. However, after last nights victory over third seeded Oklahoma, Stanford has proven that their seeding was indeed a mistake and as a result, the Sooners paid dearly for the NCAA Committees error in judgment.
Behind Nicole Powell's game high 23 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists, the Stanford Cardinal defeated the Oklahoma Sooners in convincing fashion by a score of 68-43. Coming into the game, Stanford was considered the underdog, as many thought Oklahomas speed and quickness would be too much for the Cardinal to handle. Even after Stanford defeated Missouri by 24 points on Saturday night, many questioned Stanfords talent and ability to hang with the Sooners. Even the most optimistic Cardinal fan knew a battle between the two teams was on hand. By the time the buzzer sounded, no one would have ever predicted such a lopsided outcome, as Stanford was able to defuse the Sooners' quickness and take advantage of their lack of depth.
The starting five for Stanford consisted of juniors Kelley Suminski and Susan Borchardt in the backcourt, senior Nicole Powell on the wing, and juniors T'Nae Thiel and Chelsea Trotter in the paint. Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale countered with the guard trio of Dionnah Jackson, Maria Villarroel, and Erin Higgins, plus Leah Hill and Caton Hill in the post.
The Oklahoma Sooners were the first to get on the scoreboard, as Jackson easily drove into the lane for a bucket a minute and a half into the game. Stanford tried to get its offense off and running, but with no success. They attempted to take advantage of the Sooners' lack of height inside, but no one could buy a basket. The passes into the post resulted in clankers off the rim, as Trotter's and Powell's shots from the paint came up painfully short. Down by six, Thiels turnaround jumper from 10 feet out finally got Stanford on the board at the 15-minute mark. Stanford was doing a good job spreading the floor and passing the ball, but their shots were just not falling. Junior reserve Sebnem Kimyacioglu's three from the top of the key at 14:14 brought the Cardinal within one point at 5-6. However, Hill would began a 7-0 run by the Sooners at the 12-minute mark, as she muscled her way to the basket, despite being surrounded by a sea of red jerseys. Oklahoma was beginning to pull away with hard-nosed defense and accurate shooting from the outside.
For the first 10 minutes, things were looking grim for Tara VanDerveers squad. Down 13-5, Stanford was shooting a measly 2-of-14 from the field, including 1-of-7 from beyond the arc. In spite of its terrible offensive production, Stanford kept the game relatively close with its excellent man-to-man defense, not allowing Oklahoma to pull away with a sizeable lead. With 8:59 remaining, Stanford finally began to make a move, as the they went on a 12-2 spurt, beginning with Suminskis drive to the hoop. Despite being held scoreless for much of the first half, Powell displayed her offensive prowess during this pivotal run, scoring seven straight Cardinal points. The Cardinals great ball movement and aggressiveness were starting to pay off and their offense was picking up steam as time went on. Stanford was able to grab a 17-15 lead when Suminski came off of a screen to nail the triple with 6:24 left in the half. With 2:08 to go, Powell gave Stanford a 20-17 edge with a pair of free throws she earned after getting fouled on a fade-away jumper. Incidentally, her second free throw of the night allowed the All-American to break the 2,000 point barrier. Another Powell free throw in the waning seconds left Stanford clinging to a 23-22 lead as the half came to a close.
During halftime, Coach VanDerveer emphasized attacking the basket and setting good screens to create the necessary offense to win the ball game. And boy did her message get through to the players. Stanford started off the second half with a bang, as they outscored Oklahoma 16-4 over the first five minutes to gain a 39-26 lead, a far cry from the poor offensive showing in the first 20 minutes. Powell had six points in the decisive run, including the opening points of the half, when she made a five-foot turnaround jumper with 19:21 left in the game. Stanford displayed a diverse offense, as the Cardinal scored willingly from the inside as well as the outside. Trotter and Thiel worked hard underneath to gain good position, while Suminski and Borchardt were lighting it up from downtown.
Despite being behind by 13 points, the Sooners started chipping away at the Stanford lead and cut it to seven points. After Hills three brought their deficit to single digits with 13 minutes remaining, momentum looked to shift in Oklahomas favor and Stanford appeared to be headed towards another second half meltdown. However, Stanford continued to stay aggressive on their end and refused to revert back to its old habits. After the three by Hill, Powell responded by driving deep into the post and dished off to a wide open Trotter, who easily made the lay-up. This began an amazing 22-0 scoring spree, showcasing Stanfords breadth of offense. Great screens created open looks for Borchardt on the perimeter, and drives by Powell allowed Trotter to dominate the paint. Suminski also proved that she is more than just a three-point threat, as she scored almost at will, either from her sweet stroke outside, posting up in the paint, or driving to the basket. On one play, Suminski faced a winding shot clock; all she did was dribble into the paint and put up a desperate, ugly shot that hit nothing but net. It was that type of magic that allowed Stanford to dominate on all facets of the court in the second half. Stanford got its biggest lead of the game when Trotter got an offensive board off of a Powell miss and layed it in, causing Stanford to go up 63-34. By the time Hill ended the Sooners seven-minute scoring drought with an inside basket, the damage was done. Stanford had taken a commanding 26-point lead with 5:40 remaining and there was no doubt that the Cardinal would advance to the Sweet Sixteen.
Although Powell led the Cardinal in almost every statistical category on Monday night, it was the play of Suminski, Borchardt and Trotter that made the difference for Stanford. Suminski took VanDerveers challenge to be more aggressive to heart, as the 59 guard finished with 19 points, many of which came from either posting up or driving to the basket. It didnt hurt that she also shot 3-of-5 from beyond the arc. Although Oklahomas defense would not allow her to penetrate easily, Borchardt became a threat from downtown. Held scoreless in the first half, the feisty 57 guard nailed three treys in the last 20 minutes en route to nine points on the night. Her teammates setup Borchardt with perfectly placed screens; all she had to do was plant her feet, catch the ball, and watch as her shot hit nothing but net. Trotter was a force in the paint and Oklahoma did not have an answer for the 63 center. She was a favorite target of the Stanford guards down low and Trotter did not disappoint. After missing her first two shot attempts, the redshirt junior was 4-of-5 from the field the rest of the game and finished with 10 points. The stat of the game that stands out the most: during Stanfords 22-0 run, Powell only contributed two points. The other 20 were scored by the trio of Suminski, Borchardt, and Trotter. Monday night, Stanford proved that the days of Nicole Powell versus everyone else are long gone. She now has a supporting cast that is willing to step up and shoot the rock, taking the pressure off of the 62 First Team All-American.
While fans marveled at Stanfords ability to score at will in the latter stages of the game, the real reason behind the Cardinal victory can be traced to their willingness to play defense. The Cardinal came out with an aggressive man-to-man match-up, and there were few times where the Sooners were able to break down their defenders. Kimyacioglu played a big role in sustaining the defensive intensity in the first half, as she defended well against Oklahomas much quicker backcourt. The 511 guard from nearby Mountain View, CA also garnered two monster blocks in the first half, as she was able to stop both Jackson and Villaroel from getting easy baskets. Overall, Kimyacioglu fought for rebounds, played great help defense, got down and dirty for loose balls, and displayed grit and hustle that rubbed off on her teammates. While not contributing much to the overall score, the 61 Thiel did a superb job defending the paint. The undersized center for Stanford did a great job keeping Oklahomas post players in check, getting Rush into foul trouble and not allowing Hill to get any easy baskets underneath. On the perimeter, both Borchardt and Suminski stuck to Higgins like glue, not allowing Oklahomas sharpshooter to get hot from the outside. Stanfords defense held Villarroel, Oklahomas leading scorer, to just eight points on 2-of-11 shooting. Oklahomas inability to find an open three-point threat was a testament to the defensive strategy of the coaching staff and the execution of the players.
Coach VanDerveer and her staff of Amy Tucker, Karen Middelton, and Julie Rousseau did an excellent job of scouting Coach Coales ballclub and devising ways of neutralizing Oklahomas strengths while promoting Stanfords own assets. One of the best adjustments VanDerveer made was by taking Powell out midway through the first half. Powell was struggling to find her rhythm on offense, as her first two attempts were short. The few minutes of rest Powell received worked wonders, as Powell came alive to fuel Stanfords 12-2 rally in the first half. In addition, having both Powell and Suminski drive deep into the lane allowed Stanford to easily pick apart Oklahomas defense, as they would either take it to the hoop or pass the ball off to an open teammate. Powell was also able to get her defender, Jackson, into foul trouble with her aggressive play. Stanford did an excellent job at spreading the floor and making the right passes in order to free up a teammate. The Cardinal also set screens effectively, which allowed their shooters to get hot from downtown.
It is the perception that the Pac-10 is a soft conference and that Stanford would not be able to compete with the more physical teams of the Big XII. For once, the officials let the game be decided by what goes on the court, rather than by the blow of a whistle. Stanford again proved its critics wrong, as they withstood the physical play of the Sooners. A great example of this occurred early in the second half, when Villarroel clobbered Suminski after the two were going hard for a loose rebound. Rather than shying away from contact there after, Suminski immediately bounced back up and went to work, aggressively defending Villarroel and absorbing all the body contact. To say that Stanford isnt physical is simply not true, as Powell, Suminski, and Borchardt will all drive into the lane to draw contact and Thiel, Trotter, and reserve forward Azella Perryman will bang down low with the best of them.
With Monday nights victory, Stanford sent a message that was heard loud and clear across the nation. With the 25-point drubbing of the Big XII Conference Champions, the Cardinal served notice that they are not to be taken lightly anymore. Nicole Powell & Co. played their first two NCAA games with the objective of gaining national respect; they will now approach their next NCAA game against Vanderbilt with the intent of earning a date in the Elite Eight, with the possibility of going all the way to the Final Four in New Orleans.
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