Thursday night brought the women of UCLA to newly renovated Maples Pavilion. Although without injured star Noelle Quinn, the visiting Bruins initially found success against a Stanford zone that took much too long to collapse, scoring nine points in the first four minutes and reaching the first media timeout at a 10-9 Stanford margin. During that first stoppage in play, however, head coach Tara VanDerveer wisely reset the Cardinal into a man-to-man defensive, and the Bruins would not threaten again. So far this season, Stanford has not trailed at halftime and the trend continued on the strength of a defensive lockdown and offensive explosion, to the tune of a 25-6 run and a 46-31 halftime score. In the first 20 minutes of play, the team shot over 50% overall and 10-of-15 beyond the arc, setting a school record for three-pointers in a half.
The second half saw an early insertion of bench players who were then removed after a 30-point Cardinal lead shrank to just over 20 in a matter of minutes. Whether due to a lack of intensity or merely poor execution, the relatively poor performance of the bench was an area of slight concern in a game otherwise unblemished. Kristen Newlin's free throw with five seconds left in the game propelled the Cardinal to the century mark for the first time since a 104-point display at Washington State three seasons ago. The Cardinal played even better than the final margin would indicate, as two Bruins ensured that their team could leave Maples with a modicum of respect. Despite stout defensive pressure, UCLA's Lisa Willis and Shaina Zaidy notched career performances and combined for 51 points, many off of contested three-point prayers launched well beyond the arc.
After a day of rest, the Cardinal women prepared for Saturday's primetime tilt against the USC Trojans, a young squad that entered the matchup tied with the Cardinal atop the Pac-10 at 7-1. In contrast to the performance against UCLA, Stanford dominated USC from the tip. The Cardinal opened to a 12-0 lead, due in part to horrific 0-of-10 USC shooting, many of those misses coming off of open looks. The Women of Troy would never again close to within eight, as, like two nights prior, Stanford ended the first half on 28-9 streak and jogged jubilantly to the lockers with a 54-27 lead. Candice Wiggins led Cardinal scorers with 20 first-half points, but the first half was fundamentally a team effort, as Stanford shot over 70% and executed their triangle offense flawlessly, creating many easy lay-ups off of backdoor cuts.
Unlike against the Bruins, Stanford played the second-half with intensity, as they continued to double USC's score for the majority of the half, leading by an 82-40 margin with less than seven minutes left. The bench players executed at a much higher level en route to a 94-58 final, as eight players scored at least six points and all active players saw double-digit minutes, excepting Markisha Coleman.
What defines Stanford Athletics is excellence in non-traditional sports; this excellence is a Stanford tradition in itself and is contingent upon the support of fans - fans who will turn out in droves for men's basketball and football, but not always for swimming, cross-country and even, to a lesser extent, women's basketball. The fans certainly upheld their end of the bargain against USC as nearly 6,000 enthusiasts attended. The near-sellout was easily larger and louder than most men's crowds this year and encouraged the Cardinal to play with tenacity and strive for excellence, according to Susan King Borchardt in her post-game interview on KZSU.
Those in attendance saw a squad that has improved measurably since those first games at Santa Clara's Leavey Center. Game experience has certainly helped, as offensively the freshmen have gained familiarity with the triangle and the timing of its backdoor cuts. Defensively, these same players have digested their individual assignments and now play with undeniable confidence. The Candice Wiggins of today shoots both free throws and three-pointers with much more arc and accuracy than the Candice Wiggins of 2004. Wiggins has grown as a ball-handler, resulting in far fewer turnovers, and Cissy Pierce is continuing to work on not telegraphing passes.
Susan King Borchardt has aided the Cardinal's continual improvement immeasurably. Since returning from injury about a month ago, the fifth-year senior has contributed so much. Defensively, Borchardt's hands seem to be magnetically attracted to the basketball. Her relentless pressure of opposing point guards not only creates turnovers, but also allows Wiggins, Kelley Suminski, and Sebnem Kimyacioglu to conserve valuable energy and play more effectively. Offensively, the extent to which Susan opens up opposing defenses with her long-range threat cannot be overstated. Just this past weekend, on the strength of 10-of-15 shooting, Susan catalyzed a historic display of marksmanship, as the team shot well over 50% from the field and behind the arc in both games.
The team has now completed its out-of-conference schedule and has faced each of the other nine Pac-10 teams exactly once. Of these nine conference matchups, five were veritable blowouts; Washington and Arizona State managed to stay competitive into the 2nd half. Only Arizona, where the Card trailed by six midway through the second half, and, obviously, Oregon have managed to test the Cardinal whatsoever.
The Card's Pac-10 home winning streak now stands at 33, with Oregon and the Arizona schools figuring to provide the toughest challenges in the remainder of the season. While the recent four-game home stretch has certainly inflated expectations, one can't help but think that if Stanford had been playing at this level throughout the season, the team would probably be undefeated. More importantly, consensus has it that if the women continue to execute in a similar manner, only a select few teams in the nation, perhaps five or 10, will be able to compete with the Cardinal from this point forward.
While the pressure to look forward is so great, especially with the structure of the women's basketball season so reliant upon the NCAA tournament, these women deserve more from their fans. Not fully appreciating the season we've seen so far would be unfair to these players, student-athletes enjoying four of the best years of their life and some of the best basketball ever played here on The Farm. Every game brings an all-world coach, a senior class with over 100 wins, and phenomenal young talent that forces even the most pessimistic of fans to dream of tomorrow. I'm thankful just to be on the sidelines.
Daniel Novinson is a freshman at Stanford University. He's broadcasting women's basketball on KZSU - listen along at kzsu.org or 90.1 FM. Daniel welcomes any feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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