Top Test Tonight

The season thus far for the #2-ranked Stanford Cardinal has been smooth sailing and a true joy to watch. But Tara VanDerveer's troops will be tested to new lengths this evening when they suit up against Pat Summitt and the Lady Vols. This year's annual battle brings the rivalry to Knoxville, and the game will test Stanford greatly both in the paint and on the perimeter.

Ever since the Stanford Cardinal were defeated by the Tennessee Lady Vols in last year's Elite Eight, the December 21 match-up between these two perennial powerhouses has been highly anticipated. Although the Lady Vols have dominated their rivalry in recent years, Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer has reason to believe that her squad can snap their eight-match losing streak and claim victory over their SEC foes for the first time since 1997. Despite facing Tennessee in the hostile environment of the Thompson-Boling Arena, Stanford has the confidence and depth to pull out the win. Still without starting point guard Susan Borchardt, 2nd-ranked Stanford has raced out to an 8-0 record to begin the 2004-2005 basketball, including a 71-55 road win against Missouri on Saturday afternoon.

Facing a harsh crowd of 7,585, the Cardinal exhibited a balanced attack against the Tigers that enabled four players, lead by sophomore center Brooke Smith's 16 points, to score in double-digits. Throughout the season, Stanford has displayed a potent inside-outside combination on offense and Saturday's game was no different. Smith and forward Kristen Newlin wreaked havoc on the inside, effectively opening up Kelley Suminski to nail some threes. Freshman Candice Wiggins continued to impress everyone with her strong ball-handling skills, impressive defense, and amazing ability to put the ball in the basket. On the boards, T'Nae Thiel showed why she has started 82 games in her Cardinal career, snaring a game-high 11 rebounds, all on the defensive end.

In the first half, Stanford played well at times, but was unable to pull away from Missouri. Smith played a pivotal role early on for the Cardinal, scoring easily inside and being active on the boards. She also used her long arms to good use on defense, altering shots or forcing passes away from the interior. Suminski found her three-point shooting touch with 16 minutes left in the half after Wiggins zipped a pass to her on the left corner, breaking a 5-5 tie. Wiggins did a nice job leading Stanford's press, pestering Missouri with her quick feet and getting a constant hand in the passing lanes. Forward Azella Perryman also added to the defensive intensity, using her athleticism to crash the boards and apply pressure as the Tigers brought the ball up the court. Stanford was able to extend their lead to 26-16 after Sebnem Kimyacioglu lobbed a pass inside to Newlin, who scored on the easy lay-up. Good ball movement allowed players to find the best option to the hoop, whether it was from the paint or from beyond the arc. On one particular play, Wiggins penetrated deep on the left side only to be stymied by two defenders. She spotted Perryman on the right wing, who subsequently skipped the ball to Krista Rappahahn at the top of the key. Rappahahn took a dribble, faked her man out, and promptly passed the ball back to Wiggins, who was waiting underneath the basket with no one near her.

Despite the Cardinal's contributions from all players for most of the half, the Tigers hung tough and were able to close the gap to within single digits by the time half time rolled around, as the two teams headed into the locker room with Stanford holding a 29-21 advantage. Towards the end of the first period, the Cardinal had trouble jump-starting their offense. Suminski picked up her second foul with six and a half minutes to go and Wiggins took over at the point. Though the young guard has all the tools to one day be a successful general on the floor, her inexperience caused some turnovers while she tried to set up the offense. There were several times where she tried to force the issue by throwing the ball into the paint, but Missouri caught on to Stanford's game plan and was ready to intercept the pass.

Starting in the second half, however, the Cardinal tightened up its decision-making and entry passes into the post and outscored the Tigers 31-10 in the first 10 minutes to put the game out of reach. Smith was one of the recipients of the improved ball management, as she had eight points in the scoring binge. The 6'3" Marin County native established herself as an interior threat with her myriad of moves, including the old school hook shot and pretty spin move on the block. Cindy Stein's troops were unable to contain Stanford's barrage of post players, as Smith, along with Newlin, received the ball deep inside the paint. Another reason for the outburst of points was because the Cardinal revved up their transition game and took off without notifying the Tigers. Outrebounding Missouri by a huge margin of 45-23, Stanford would take the defensive rebound and automatically look to push the ball to the basket and both Suminski and Rappahahn positioned themselves to fire the three ball. The Cardinal had the manpower to turn the match into a running game and viciously punished the Tigers. By the time Newlin had scored on a lay-up at the 10:49 mark, Stanford was shooting an incredible 80% from the floor and had put the game away.

While Missouri proved to be no match for Stanford, Tennessee will give them a run for their money Tuesday night. Ranked #9 in the nation, the Lady Vols are having a down year by their standards, losing to #4 Texas on the road and to #3 Duke at home. Starting point guard Loree Moore has been sidelined since the beginning of the month, due to the removal of her tonsils. Taking her place in the backcourt has been freshman Alexis Hornbuckle, one of the most heralded recruits coming out of high school last year. The 5'11" combo guard has the size, quickness and confidence to make an impact on the collegiate scene by the time her career is over in Knoxville. She has had a difficult time adjusting to the faster pace of Division I basketball, but has slowly found her rhythm out on the court. Averaging a little less than 10 points a game, Hornbuckle shot 6-of-13 from the field and collected 15 points in the Lady Vols' most recent game, a victory over TCU on Sunday. Another freshman, Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood, made a huge impression on Pat Summitt during the TCU victory. Out at the beginning of the season with a foot injury, Wiley-Gatewood came off the bench in her first-ever NCAA match to score nine points, all on three-pointers, to provide much-needed depth at the guard position in Moore's absence. A true point guard, the 5'9" High School All-American has excellent court vision and quickness that has instantly improved Tennessee's lagging half-court offense.

While Tennessee's Class of 2008 has provided some new excitement for the Rocky Top group, it has been the play of two upperclassmen that has solidified the team. All-American senior Shyra Ely and junior shooting guard Shanna Zolman lead the team in points, averaging 12.8 and 10.4 points per game, respectively. The 6'1" Ely is a forward with the quickness of a guard and the toughness of a true post player. Against the Lady Frogs on Sunday, Ely had her best offensive showing of the season, nailing 9-of-12 from the floor to net 23 points. Zolman is sharpshooter who has the capability to light it up from any part of the court. Give her a few inches and she will make you pay by nailing a three-pointer. She has improved tremendously throughout her career in Knoxville, most notably with her defense.

The Lady Vols will also test Stanford's new strategy of "Get the Ball Inside and Often." Normally their bread and butter, the Cardinal's three-point shot has taken a back seat to pounding the ball into the paint. Through eight games last year, the team was averaging over 20.8 shots from beyond the arc; this year, only 13.8 triples per game have been attempted. With four talented players vying for playing time in the post, Stanford has scored over 42% of their points in the paint. The quartet of Smith, Newlin, Thiel and Perryman may be the deepest to play on The Farm since 1997, the year that Kristin Folkl, Naomi Mulitauaopele, Heather Owen, and Olympia Scott donned a Cardinal uniform, but they may meet their match in the Lady Vols. Ely, junior Tye'sha Fluker, and freshmen Sybil Dosty and Nicky Anosike are talented and athletic post players and will test just how well Stanford can score inside. Rebounding will be key and both Summitt and VanDerveer stress that the battle of the boards will be keys to victory.

As great as Stanford's running game was against Missouri, they will be hard pressed to find similar success against the Lady Vols, who may be the most overall athletic team the Cardinal have faced yet. Stanford must really execute its half-court offense to perfection, and this is where Borchardt would have played a key role. Smith and Newlin will have to establish themselves down low quickly to open up the outside for Suminski and Kimyacioglu. Candice Wiggins will also be a big factor if Stanford is to win. Her scoring will be much appreciated, but what is most important is her ability to take care of the ball and not try to force the ball into the paint. Her ability to penetrate will help matters in terms of opening up Stanford's three-point shooting as well. When handling the ball, Wiggins must not get flustered by the smothering full court press put on by Tennessee. If she does, then Stanford will be in for a long night. Breaking the pressure will be key, as you can bet Summitt will turn it loose on the Cardinal at some point in the match. Suminski and Wiggins must also stay out of foul trouble, as they are Stanford's main ball handlers.

The match-up on paper is a basketball fan's dream. The uberathletic Lady Vols against a balanced Cardinal squad, able to hurt you inside as well as outside. However, it will be interesting to see how well Stanford holds up mentally as the game wears on, especially if the score is close. If the five seniors can forget about the frustrating losses in the past to Tennessee and just concentrate on the present, then Stanford stands a chance. If not, then loss number nine in-a-row can be tacked onto the Cardinal record.

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