Eight Is Elite Enough

This might be what they had in mind when they coined the "March Madness" moniker for the NCAA Tournament. A dominating first half gave way to a second half meltdown Sunday night, with top gun Nicole Powell shooting all blanks down the stretch. Then a final defensive stand gave the #6 seed Cardinal one shot. Kelley Suminski dialed the drama from downtown to win in the final second, 57-55, over Vanderbilt for a berth in the Elite Eight.

Apparently, Matt Lottich isn’t the only one in a Stanford uniform to create miracles.

With 2.2 seconds left in the game, Stanford guard Kelley Suminski received a pass from teammate Nicole Powell at the top of the key and heaved up a shot that would hit nothing but net. This last second desperation shot would give the Cardinal a 57-55 victory over the Vanderbilt Commodores and a berth into the Elite Eight. Despite holding a 12-point first half lead, Stanford would ultimately need the heroics of the sharp-shooting Suminski to seal the deal and put an end to Vanderbilt’s 10-game winning streak.

Leading up to the game, many basketball analysts marveled at the similarities between Stanford and Vanderbilt. Though the two teams had never played one another, each are known as strong academic schools with a rich tradition in women’s collegiate basketball. Each team is lead by a senior player: Nicole Powell for Stanford and Jenni Benningfield for Vanderbilt. Both programs rely on strong outside shooting (38.1% from beyond the arc for Stanford and 38.8% three-point shooting for Vanderbilt) to put up big numbers on offense (71.1 points for the Cardinal to 71.2 points for the Commodores). Both the Cardinal and the Commodores won their respective conference tournaments with great comeback victories in the championship game. With all the parallels Stanford and Vanderbilt shared, many expected a close game, highlighted with tough inside play and precise outside shooting. The teams did not disappoint, showcasing a game full of hustle, heart, and last-second heroics.

Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer started her usual trio of guards: juniors Kelley Suminski and Susan Borchardt and senior Nicole Powell, while juniors T'Nae Thiel and Chelsea Trotter were upfront when the starting whistle blew. Vanderbilt coach Melanie Balcomb answered with freshman Dee Davis, junior Abi Ramsey, and senior Hillary Hager in the backcourt, while senior Jenni Benningfield and freshman Carla Thomas started in the post.

The Commodores controlled the opening tip and although Vanderbilt displayed some nice passing, Stanford exhibited tough defense, especially in the post. On Thomas’ first attempt in the paint, Powell came up from behind her, blocked the shot, and ended up with the rebound, ready to push the ball towards her side of the court. Neither team got on the scoreboard until Thiel scored on the fast-break initiated by Powell at the 18:50 mark. This would begin a 9-2 run over the first four minutes by the Cardinal, highlighted with threes by both Borchardt and Suminski. Stanford was working the ball around the court, trying to find an answer to Balcomb’s tough match-up zone and seemed to have all the answers when the Cardinal found open shooters. The Commodores were able to get within two points off of a Hager trey, but then Powell went to work on the offensive end. With 12:49 remaining in the first half, the 6’2” All-American candidate sliced through the Vandy defense for the easy lay-up. Next, Powell managed to find a waiting Sebnem Kimyacioglu on the wing, where the junior reserve canned a three. Finally, Powell capped Stanford’s 7-0 scoring streak with a pretty spin move on the low block, banking the shot in. The Commodores would once again threaten the Cardinal, as a long Benningfield jumper brought her team to within five, at 18-13, with a little over nine minutes remaining. However, using a 12-5 run, Stanford would firmly regain a 30-18 lead with timely outside shooting from Kimyacioglu and Powell and tenacious interior play from Thiel. Despite the offensive efficiency from the Cardinal, Vanderbilt still had some hope and its name was Dee Davis. The 5’5” starting point guard brought the Commodores’ deficit to within eight, as she scored her team’s final five points of the half. Stanford finished the half holding a 35-26 edge over Vanderbilt.

In the first 20 minutes, Stanford shot an incredible 61.9% from the field, including an astounding 6-of-10 from beyond the arc. The Cardinal offense was kicking in high gear and Nicole Powell was able to find the open shooters necessary to solve a match-up zone as difficult as the one Balcomb had set forth. However, the second half proved to be a very different story, as Vanderbilt clamped down on their defense and made life miserable for the Cardinal. The Commodores opened up with a 9-2 run, as they capitalized on missed jumpers and turnovers by the Cardinal. With 16:26 remaining, Benningfield electrified the Vandy faithful with her lay-up, as it knotted the game up at 37 apiece. However, Stanford would not wilt, as Borchardt hit back-to-back three’s from the right corner to build a six-point lead for her squad. As Vanderbilt would draw within two at 43-41 with 14 minutes left in the game, Stanford made another run to push their lead to seven. Off of a rebound, Powell pushed the ball up the court and gave a streaking Thiel a beautiful half-court bounce pass and the 6’1” forward converted with an easy lay-up.On the very next Stanford possession, great inside-outside passing from Powell to Thiel to Trotter enabled the 6’3” center to get an inside basket and the foul, pushing Stanford to a 48-41 lead with 12 minutes remaining. Momentum had swung Stanford’s way and they seemed firmly in control of the situation.

Despite being down for much of the game, Vanderbilt never gave up and Balcomb’s squad kept chipping away at their deficit. The Commodores eventually pulled even with Stanford by playing great defense and going inside to reserve Ashley Earley. Although only 5’11”, the junior scored six straight Vandy points by muscling her way into the paint and finding a way to put the ball into the basket. On two Benningfield free throws, Vanderbilt took a slim 52-50 lead with five minutes left in the game. With the pressure mounting, every possession became of utmost importance and the slightest miscue would mean disaster. Offensive execution was a must and great defensive pressure would mean a berth into the Elite Eight. Holding a slight 55-54 lead, Vanderbilt had the ball with 45 seconds left in the game. Not able to get off a good shot, Balcomb called a 30-second timeout to settle her team and draw up a play to hopefully increase the Vanderbilt lead. It was not to be, as the suffocating Stanford defense denied Vanderbilt any easy look at the basket and the Commodores turned the ball over with a shot clock violation. It was Stanford’s possession with 11.2 ticks left on the clock. Although Powell had been ice-cold in the second half, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind who would have the ball for the final play. Powell received the ball from the inbounds pass and dribbled the length of the court. She drove past Davis and into the lane, only to be met with a double team. She spun and kicked the ball out to a wide-open Suminski. Without hesitation, the 5’9” junior unleashed a three-pointer with virtually no time left that would seal Stanford’s fate and give them the two point lead. Moments later, Stanford players ran out to the mid-court and enveloped Suminski in a sea of hugs and joyous screams. Stanford had survived Vanderbilt in the most heart-pounding fashion with a 57-55 victory, and the Cardinal advanced to the Elite Eight for the first time since 1997.

The most important aspect of the game that stood out was how much Stanford has come along as a team over the season. If Powell had found herself in the exact position earlier in the year, she would have tried to make the shot herself. She has learned to trust her teammates and that she doesn’t have to carry the team on her back in order to be successful; that is what made the biggest difference in the ballgame Sunday night. Despite having a stellar first half to the tune of 14 points, 11 rebounds and six assists, Powell only managed two points, six rebounds, and three assists in the last 20 minutes of the game. Vanderbilt did a nice job of defending Powell and making her work hard to get position down low. In addition, the crowd may have had a significant impact on Powell’s game towards the latter stages on Sunday night. With 10 minutes to go, Davis stole the ball from Powell and was streaking towards the basket. Powell gave Davis a hard foul to stop her from the easy lay-up and the Vandy point guard fell to the ground in pain. Since that incident, Powell was booed loudly by the crowd with every touch. However, in the end, Powell proved that she wasn’t going to let a crowd affect her play and calmly made the decision to fire off the pass to Suminski.

Another key to the Cardinal win was how Stanford defended the Commodores top offensive threats. Vanderbilt’s Thomas, though just a freshman, was coming into the NCAA as one of the hottest player in the nation after garnering the MVP award at the SEC Tournament. Thiel did a wonderful job at denying Thomas the ball on the low block, and the freshman shot a miserable 0-of-5 from the field. Trotter did a great job at defending the mobile Benningfield, holding her to only 11 points. Powell also played some great help defense, as she assisted her teammates in keeping Vandy’s post players in check. Borchardt, Suminski, and Kimyacioglu played awesome perimeter defense, holding Vandy to a measly 27.3% from beyond the arc. The Cardinal have shown they can get the necessary defensive stops when needed, as the last two out of three offensive possessions for the Commodores resulted in shot clock violations. Defense wins championships and there are no bigger believers than the Stanford Cardinal.

On the offensive end, Powell lead the way with 16 points, 17 rebounds, and nine assists. Thiel played solidly in the post and chipped in 10 points and four boards while Suminski and Borchardt were hot from the outside, combining for 20 points.

Stanford will now face Tennessee in the Elite Eight on Tuesday night. Nicole Powell has one last chance to defeat the Lady Vols, and she would love nothing better than to do it with a Final Four berth on the line.

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