Card See SEC in Sweet Sixteen

Stanford's first weekend of this 2004 NCAA Tournament was all about the Big XII, with the under-seeded underdogs asked to handle tough Missouri and Oklahoma squads. Now as the red-hot Cardinal move into the regionals they stare down the SEC Tournament and regular season champions in perhaps back-to-back game. The Vols will be something we address later, but for now a rising Vanderbilt squad presents a formidable foe on Sunday.

Stanford entered the NCAA Tournament last weekend searching for respect. The perennial Top 10 team had hoped for a high seed going into the Big Dance, but was awarded a surprisingly low six seed in the Midwest Region when the tournament brackets were announced on March 15. Rather than complain about the seeding, Stanford quietly went about its business and used the NCAA Committee’s total disregard for the Pac-10 Champions as a motivator in practice.

Throughout the week leading up to its first round match, Stanford was left out of virtually all discussion of national title contenders, as many basketball analysts even predicted the battle-tested, but lower seeded, Missouri Tigers of the Big XII Conference would knock out the West Coast powerhouse in the first round. Stanford ignored their critics and showed up on Saturday night as a team on a mission. Led by Nicole Powell's 17 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists, the Cardinal exhibited inspired team play, out-shooting and out-hustling the Tigers on their way to an easy 68-44 win.

Despite their impressive victory, Tara VanDerveer's ballclub continued to garner little praise from around the nation. No one gave Stanford a chance to defeat the Oklahoma Sooners, one of America’s hottest teams, in the second round. After they embarrassed a tough Texas squad in the Big XII Conference Tournament Championship, the Sooners became everyone’s darkhorse pick to reach New Orleans, this year’s site of the Final Four.

As the two teams prepared for the Saturday night slugfest, an intriguing plotline was developing. The history between the two teams is rather short, but the rivalry forged is as ugly as it gets. Three years ago, the Cardinal traveled to Norman, OK to take on the Sooners in a non-conference game. Towards the end of the first half, Stanford's Susan Borchardt was headed down the court on a breakaway play. As she went up to lay the ball in, Sooners guard LaNiesha Caulfield committed a hard foul on the airborne Borchardt. Whether the foul was necessary or not continues to be a hot topic for discussion. The result of the ensuing play was a torn ACL and Borchardt lost nearly two years of her collegiate eligibility. To top things off, the NCAA Committee sent the Stanford Cardinal back to Norman, OK for that year’s NCAA Tournament, where they met Oklahoma in the second round. The emotions of the previous game were too much to overcome and the Cardinal meekly went down to the hometown favorites, 67-50. So not only was Stanford playing for respect against Oklahoma, but revenge was a motivating factor as well.

While both sides tried to be politically correct about the incident leading up to Monday’s game, Stanford player Sebnem Kimyacioglu reveals that revenge was indeed on the minds of the Cardinal.

“I think [Borchardt’s injury] was definitely motivation. We feel she got hurt and it wasn’t necessary to do that,” the 5’11” guard comments. “I felt [the foul] was dirty. We wanted to pay them back – not hurt them, but beat them.”

And beat them they did. Assuming the role of the underdog, the Cardinal came prepared to wage war against the Sooners. After playing even for the first 20 minutes of the game, Stanford started the second half with a 16-4 spurt that would give them a 39-26 lead. Although the Sooners would cut the lead to just seven points with a little over 12 minutes remaining, VanDerveer’s troops never lost their cool. After losing double-digit second half leads to teams like Arizona State, USC, and Tennessee earlier in the year, Stanford was determined not to break down during the most pivotal portion of their season.

“We weren’t scared at all,” Kimyacioglu remarks of the Sooners' comeback. “[We] just kept doing what we were doing. We let them get an open three-point shot, but that wasn’t a reason to fall apart.”

The Cardinal responded by scoring the next 22 points over a span of seven minutes. By the time Oklahoma senior Caton Hill broke the Sooners' drought with an inside basket, the game was out of reach. On the strength of its strong outside shooting and equally impressive post play, Stanford romped to a 68-43 triumph over a hapless Oklahoma squad.

During their first two tournament wins, Stanford displayed an attitude that fans have rarely seen this year. Bordering on cocky, the confident swagger Stanford exhibited during the early rounds of the NCAA Tournament was a sight to behold. Gone is a team that would buckle under the pressure of their competition; in its place is a determined group of players filled with heart and grit. From their play over the weekend, the Cardinal demanded that they be a force to be reckoned with during the Big Dance. After slaying some of the best the Big XII Conference has to offer, Stanford looks to take down another power conference, the great SEC Conference. Perennially known as the toughest conference in America, Stanford will match up in the Sweet Sixteen against its conference tournament winner, the Vanderbilt Commodores.

A relatively young squad, Vanderbilt has evolved from a team plagued with injuries and off-court distractions to a cohesive unit that has been firing on all cylinders in recent months. Despite having senior leadership from Jenni Benningfield and Hillary Hager, the Commodores had the difficult task of incorporating and embracing six new faces at the beginning of the season. Second-year head coach Melanie Balcomb also had to contend with the injuries to her star players, Benningfield and starting point guard Dee Davis. Fortunately for the Vandy faithful, Balcomb has gradually molded a team that is both physically and mentally tough. Vanderbilt tested their psychological boundaries with an incredible come from behind win over Georgia in the SEC Conference Tournament Championship. Trailing by 18 points with 17 minutes remaining, the Commodores began a furious comeback for the ages. The 62-56 victory in such an important setting only increased Vanderbilt’s confidence. On a 10-game win streak dating back to mid-February, Vanderbilt is determined to reach the Elite Eight and contend for a ticket to New Orleans.

The SEC Tournament Conference Champion is a deep team that relies on an eight-player rotation. Behind the success of Commodores is the play of Balcomb’s starting guard trio: Dee Davis, Abi Ramsey, and Hillary Hager. Also a part of Vanderbilt’s heralded “Super Six” freshman class, Davis is a point guard on the rise. Whether pushing the ball up the floor at a lightning pace or setting up Vandy’s halfcourt offense, Davis is the key to the Commodores’ offense. The 5’6” speed demon has been described as a fireball of intensity on the court, whose best attribute is finding an open teammate. Despite missing five games midway through the season due to a stress reaction in her right foot, Davis leads the team in assists, with 126 on the year. While her role this year is to distribute the ball, Davis has been known to score with her penetration into the lane. Her quick first step allows her to beat her defender to the basket and get the easy bucket. In addition to her assists, Davis contributes 4.2 points and 2.6 rebounds a game. Vandy’s shooting guard position has been filled nicely this year by Ramsey, a sharpshooter who can light it up from beyond the arc. Earlier in the year, Ramsey struggled with off-court problems. On November 10, 2003, the 5’10” Tennessee native was arrested for driving under the influence. As a result of her irresponsible actions, Ramsey was suspended for 11 games. Her return to the hardwood on December 29 was a welcome addition for the Commodores, as Ramsey hit three three-pointers en route to 12 points that game. Shooting an incredible 42.6% from beyond the arc, Ramsey’s sweet stroke is a threat to put up points in a hurry if left open. As the co-leading scorer on the team at 13.2 points a game, Ramsey knows how to put the offensive hurt on her opponents. The guard is also Vandy’s leading free throw shooter, nailing 81.8% of her shots from the foul line. Throughout the season, Ramsey has proven to be more than an outside assassin. Though not the quickest member of the Vanderbilt squad, the junior plays great defense due to her anticipation and basketball instincts. The remaining starting guard spot is occupied by Hager, another outside threat. The senior co-captain can knock down the three with ease, shooting a 41.1% clip from downtown. While mainly known for her shooting, Hager also plays underrated defense, as her basketball smarts allow her to be in the right place to pick off a pass and go for the steal. On the season, the 5’10” Hager has 53 steals, a team high, and is averaging 11.7 points a contest.

When Balcomb looks to give her starting guards a breather, she turns to two freshman to play solid minutes for the team. Katie Antony was a prolific scorer in high school and her high school career total of 4,337 points ranks sixth all-time in the United States among high school girls. The 5’10” versatile freshman is learning how to transfer her offensive moves to the collegiate level, as she is capable of attacking the basket and getting herself to the free throw line. Antony has dabbled with the point during the season and has the basketball smarts and passing skills necessary to succeed at that position. While Davis was out with her injury, Antony stepped in admirably to lead Vanderbilt at the point. She currently ranks second on the team in assists with 79 and is averaging a respectable 4.2 points a game. Fellow freshman Cherish Stringfield brings great energy off the bench, as her 46.7% three-point shooting percentage is bound to pump up her teammates when she takes the court. Her ability to drive also makes her a threat to score within the paint. On the year, she’s tallying 5.3 points a game. Stringfield’s ability to handle the ball also makes her capable of playing the point.

Patrolling the paint for Vanderbilt is a trio of players who blend experience with athleticism to create a formidable presence. Leading the way is 6’3” forward Jenni Benningfield, a tough competitor who likes to bang down low as much as she likes to nail the triple. The versatility Benningfield brings to the court creates matchup problems which tip in Vandy’s favor. Although the co-captain has been hampered with nagging foot injuries since the beginning of the season, Benningfield is the unmistakable emotional leader on and off the court. Her presence calms her team down during crunch time; it doesn’t hurt that she also manages to make the big plays for her team when needed. She is averaging a team-high 13.2 points a contest and is second on the team in rebounds with 5.9 a game. While she was expected to be Commodores’ go-to player at the beginning of the year, her injuries have severely limited her practice and game time. The success of Vanderbilt can be directly correlated to Benningfield’s acceptance of her injury and her willingness to allow other players to step up when she is not able to do so. Freshman Carla Thomas has been one recipient of Benningfield’s deference, as Thomas has blossomed into an absolute monster in the paint. The 6’3” center is an athletic and agile player whose big hands and powerful inside moves make her a dangerous foe on the block. The MVP of the SEC Tournament has proven to be a triple threat on offense, as she possesses a soft shooting touch from 15 feet out, great post moves, and the ability to run down the floor on a breakaway play. Her strong, physical play will be difficult for any team to overcome. She earned a spot in the starting lineup halfway through the year and has shown no signs of letting up. The precocious freshman is currently averaging 10.2 points and 5.0 boards a game while shooting a team-high 56.0% from the floor. The combination of Thomas’ long arms and athleticism also make her a terrific shot-blocker; she leads the team with 37 swats. While Benningfield and Thomas start for the Commodores, Balcomb can send in reserve Ashley Earley to change the nature of the game at any moment. The undersized post works hard under the basket for both points and rebounds and her tenacious style of play allows her to be quite successful. The athletic 5’11” player makes up for her lack of height with heart and hustle, as she is prepared to do the dirty work that will make her team better. In a great junior year campaign, Earley is averaging 11.5 points and a team-leading 6.7 rebounds a game.

Although Stanford and Vanderbilt have never met, this could be the start of a wonderful rivalry, as both schools are rich in academic and basketball tradition. Balcomb offers a unique challenge for VanDerveer and her staff, as the Vandy coach employs a match-up zone defense, a strategy Stanford is unfamiliar with this year. A match-up zone incorporates elements of man-to-man and zone defenses, with the objective being to limit penetration, one-on-one situations, and the high-low game while still establishing a strong perimeter defense. Though the Stanford coach acknowledges the difficulty Balcomb’s defense presents, she is not deterred by the puzzle the zone presents.

“[Vanderbilt] can do a lot of things defensively. Nobody has played a zone [against us] so this will be new,” VanDerveer offers. “We need a combination of our perimeter scoring and post production – we can’t have just one. We have to rebound. In a zone, they don’t have anyone to box out, and we have to get in position and fight for balls. Our scout team is working very hard [to prepare us for Vanderbilt]”

While Balcomb has been known to play mainly a match-up zone, she is not afraid to mix up her defenses. Against the Bulldogs, she started using a trapping defense early in the second half when her match-up zone was being torn to shreds by Georgia’s quick guards and great passes into the paint. The switch took the Bulldogs by surprise, allowing the Commodores to claw their way back into the game. If Stanford is to emerge victorious, the Cardinal have to be aware of what defense is being thrown at them at all times.

One thing that will be imperative for Stanford on Sunday will be to maintain their aggressive nature. Juniors Kelley Suminski and Susan Borchardt and senior Nicole Powell will have to find holes in the zone and attempt to penetrate and either score or dish to the open teammate. Kimyacioglu will also have to get hot from outside. Her shot has been very inconsistent for Stanford this year and VanDerveer would love nothing better than to label her Stanford’s very own zone-buster on Sunday. Luckily for the team, if Kimyacioglu is not up to the task, Borchardt, Suminski and Powell are all capable from hitting beyond the arc. In addition, the post players will play a pivotal part in solving Vandy’s zone.

“The paint is the open area in the zone, and that’s where a lot of our zone offense needs to be focused,” explains center Chelsea Trotter. “Our posts will need to handle the ball well and score when we get it, and also pass out to our perimeter players as well.”

While containing Vandy’s top offensive players and solving their defense seem daunting enough, Stanford might also be playing in front of a hostile crowd in Norman, OK, full of Sooner fans bitter that the Cardinal knocked out their beloved Sooners Monday night. Add to the fact that the last time Stanford trekked across the country to play at the Lloyd Noble Center three years ago, it resulted in a double-digit NCAA tournament loss. Trotter insists, however, where the game is played will have no damaging effect on the team.

“At this point, we’re looking forward to play anywhere. Norman is a great place to play. I’m just happy to be paying in the Sweet 16 – whether that’s Timbuktu or Los Angeles.”

Stanford entered the postseason with a chip on its shoulder as a result of their low seed. While everyone in the country doubted their ability to even get out of the first round, the players and coaching staff believed in themselves and took on a “us-against-the-world” mentality. With this new found attitude, the Cardinal took out two teams from the tough Big XII Conference and they are eager to take out one more player from another power conference. The players know if they play up to their capabilities, victory is certainly within their grasp.

“We know this is a special team with a lot of potential, and we want to live up to that potential,” Kimyacioglu notes.

With the play the Cardinal demonstrated over the weekend, the players are keeping up their part in fulfilling their potential. Whether it will be enough to earn a date in the Elite Eight remains to be seen.

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