In many ways, the women's desert swing this past weekend resembled a weekend in the NCAA tournament. The team played two quality opponents in close, hard-fought, tournament-caliber matchups. Stanford traveled on the road for these games and enjoyed a day of rest in between. In fact, the women could actually return to Tempe at the end of March with two games separating them from a trip to the Final Four, and if the comparison between this weekend and that weekend in March is at all apt, Stanford faithful have reason to be incredibly optimistic about this team's postseason performance.
First on the slate this past weekend was a Friday night tip against the Arizona State Sun Devils, who came into the contest with a 10-3 record and a #24 ranking in the Coaches' Poll. The teams were close initially, knotting at 21, but the Card then managed to jump out to a seven-point halftime lead, 38-31. ASU would close to 45-49 with 10:27 left, but Stanford would prove too much for the Sun Devils when the game mattered the most, outscoring the home team 19-8 in the final minutes for a 68-57 victory, despite shooting only 60% (6/10) from the charity stripe in final three minutes and converting only 63% of free throws overall. The Cardinal's victory came on the strength of over 50% accuracy from field and the most explosive performance to date from Candice Wiggins.
Perhaps when she's all done here at The Farm, we'll look back and point to this game as Wiggins' statement game, the initial performance that foreshadowed all of the great accomplishments she's more than capable of achieving in her remaining three-plus seasons. Already her performance that Friday night helped her win Pac-10 Player of the Week honors, and deservedly so. Her 31 points are a career high but mere statistics fail to fully showcase her performance. Of those 31 points, many were lay-ups, created by Wiggins stealing the ball and beating the entire Arizona State team back up the court and to the hoop. Plenty of those 31 points also came from dribble-drive penetration - penetration into the heart of the ASU defense. Both Wiggins' dribble-drive ability and her knack for the timely steal add a new dimension to the current team and demonstrate her unbelievable game speed. Despite only 15 games of experience, she makes the game look so effortless that one can't help but wonder how much potential this budding star has.
From Tempe, the team traveled to Tucson to face the Arizona Wildcats in an attempt to emphatically end Arizona's 34-game home winning streak, the longest in nation. In front of a fervent Arizona crowd, a game of quarters evolved, with each team winning each 10-minute segment of the game by at least five points. The middle "quarters" went to Arizona by a combined 45-33. However, the Cardinal won the first "quarter" 19-11, and, facing a 52-56 deficit with 10 minutes remaining, outscored the Wildcats down the stretch 26-10, highlighted by an 18-1 run, and resulting in a convincing 78-66 victory.
A large part of the reason for such a dominant conclusion to the Arizona game came from the free throw line, where the Cardinal shot 25/28, nearly a 90% clip. Coming into the game, Stanford was only converting about 70% of their free throws, 7% off of last year's pace, so we can hope that the Cardinal have regained their touch. After her 31, Wiggins scored another 28; backcourt partner Kelley Suminski contributed 20 as well.
Defensively, the Cardinal did have trouble with 6'5" Shawntinice Polk, a player whose height Stanford could match, but a player who must have outweighed any Cardinal by at least 40 pounds. Although she only scored 12 points, she single-handedly caused the entire Stanford zone to collapse around her. Double or triple-teamed, "Pokie" easily and frequently found her teammates unguarded on the perimeter. Dee Dee Wheeler exploited this mismatch for 25 points, leading all Arizona scorers. Although the team has decent height, the Cardinal do not have a player on the roster with the pure size to guard the largest and most forceful of inside players by herself. Good teams with a player the size of "Pokie" could take advantage of a size discrepancy down the road.
Nonetheless, fans have to be impressed with the current composition of this team. Players are doing a nice job of filling specific roles in the offense – Susan Borchardt and Krista Rappahahn are the sweetest of shooters; Kelley Suminski handles the ball with the presence of the senior Wooden Award candidate that she is; Brooke Smith and Kristen Newlin create an inside presence opponents often are forced to double-team; and, when all else fails, just let Candice Wiggins create.
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