It took all 40 minutes and then some, but Tennessee's Shanna Zolman's desperation three at the buzzer handed the Stanford Cardinal their first loss of the season, 70-67. Zolman's teammates mobbed her on the court and streamers fell from the rafters, but the officials put the celebration on temporary hold while they examined the replay. After a pause, the zebras raised their hands to rule the shot out of Zolman's hands in time, and good. Zolman's heave negated Kelley Suminski's heroics just seconds earlier.
Suminski, who had a season-high 21 points, drilled a three from the top of the key with five seconds to play to complete a last minute Cardinal comeback and knot the game at 67-67. It looked like Suminski's shot would send the game into overtime, but Zolman had other ideas.
Zolman received the in-bounds feed and nearly lost it to Suminski but then turned upcourt. With Suminski trailing, no other Stanford defender left their defensive assignment, and Zolman knocked down her clean look from 25 feet. Tennessee Head Coach Pat Summitt admitted after the game that after Suminski's three, she tried to call a timeout, but as soon as she saw Zolman steaming upcourt, she stopped herself. It's much easier to joke after a win.
It's hard to explain just how demoralizing a loss this was for the Stanford Cardinal. Some players were near tears near the bench at the end of the game. It wasn't just that it was the first loss; it was Tennessee, again.
Sebnem Kimyacioglu said on the postgame radio show on 1220 AM that it would make the team stronger in March, but she admitted that the loss was painful.
Suminski's three capped a comeback from a deficit that grew to 11 points after Tennesee's freshman point guard Alexis Hornbuckle drilled a jumper with 6:51 to play in the game. It was the largest deficit the Cardinal had faced all year, and yet they rallied on the road, in front of a hostile crowd.
Down 11, with the Knoxville crowd on its feet, the Cardinal's rally began with perhaps its steadiest player - T'Nae Thiel knocked down a 17-foot jumper from the left corner to cut the Tennessee lead to nine. That bucket ended a 15-2 Tennessee run and allowed the Cardinal to exhale and regroup. On the next Stanford possession, Sebnem Kimyacioglu knocked down a three for her only bucket of the game, and the Cardinal had a little momentum, down six with 5:46 remaining. The Cardinal closed to within four with four and a half minutes left when Candice Wiggins jumped in front of a Tennessee pass from the wing, and streaked the other way for an uncontested lay-up.
After a big defensive stop, the Cardinal got the ball back, down four with 40 seconds to play. Candice Wiggins, who was guarded by Shyra Ely all night, drove down the right side of the lane and threw up an errant twisting, turning runner, but was fouled. She hit one of two at the foul line to bring Stanford within one. After a Tennessee offensive foul, Wiggins landed back at the line, but missed both free throws. Wiggins, an 80% FT shooter so far this year, might have displayed a rare (for her) case of freshman nerves. Down three, the Cardinal had no choice but to foul. Ely knocked down two foul shots to up the Tennessee lead to five with 29 seconds left.
Stanford refused to fold, and Wiggins drove again, this time laying it up through hard contact for two. Again, Stanford was forced to foul. The Cardinal denied the ball to Zolman, Tennessee's best shooter, but Brittany Jackson, an 82% performer at the free throw line, came back to the ball and drew the foul. Remarkably, she left Stanford with a chance by missing both opportunities at the line. The Cardinal set up a quick play for Suminski who was open at the top of the key. Wiggins hit her, and the Cardinal had tied up the game.
The Cardinal defense was superb all night. Stanford forced 18 Tennessee turnovers and held the Vols to just 37% shooting on the evening. T'Nae Thiel drew most of the minutes against Tennessee's returning All-American, Shyra Ely, and held Ely to 5-of-12 shooting from the floor. Ely had the most success when she beat the pack down the floor and didn't have to deal with Thiel's stifling defense. Thiel forced Ely into four turnovers and didn't let her create offense for her teammates; Ely finished with just one assist. This game was physical, and the SEC officials called their share of fouls, but let the players bang. Stanford will be lucky to play another game as physical before the NCAA tourney.
The Cardinal also have to be pleased with their defensive effort on Shanna Zolman, the Vols' leading backcourt threat. Zolman's only three was on the game's final possession.
Stanford took a 31-29 lead into halftime, mostly on the strength of Kelley Suminski, who simply would not let her team fall too far behind in the first half. Suminski had 15 first half points and was 3-of-4 from beyond the arc. With the score tied at 29, Tennesee apparently had the final possession of the first half. After a missed jumper, Cissy Pierce ripped a rebound away from Tennesee forward Sidney Spencer and then set up Azella Perryman with a layup to send Stanford to the break up a pair. It was probably Pierce's finest moment of the season.
Coming out of halftime, after three minutes of trading buckets, Stanford went on a 6-0 run to extend their lead to eight at 34-42. All three baskets over that stretch - a "Brooke Hook", a Wiggins steal & score, and a Suminski drive - were converted within five feet of the hoop. Pat Summitt called a timeout, and the Vols held Stanford to just eight points over the next eight minutes. The Cardinal had trouble containing Brittany Jackson, who exploded for 11 second half points, including seven in a row, as the Lady Vols surged past the Cardinal.
Tennessee's strength and length made things difficult all night for Stanford, and particularly the post players. Brooke Smith and Kristen Newlin combined for just 11 field goal attempts and did not attempt a free throw despite a combined 40-plus minutes. Tennessee contested every pass and nearly every dribble. In the second half, the Vols dropped into a zone to keep Stanford outside.
The Cardinal matched their season average in turnovers, 13, in the first half alone. Tennessee had to reach deep to beat a game Cardinal squad, and got their scoring from some unlikely places. Tye'sha Fluker had 13 points. Dominique Redding added six, and Coach Pat Summitt praised her as playing the best minutes of her career.
Although the Cardinal lost a tough, physical game in Tennessee on Tuesday night, college basketball seasons are not made in December. The ultimate payoff for this game will be in March when a battle-tested Cardinal team that proved their heart and desire mix it with big-game experience.
Toby Hyde is the voice of the Stanford Cardinal on the all new 1220 KNTS, the new home of Stanford Women's Basketball on the radio. KNTS will carry all 28 of the Cardinal's regular season games, and all of the postseason action.
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