Cardinal Claim Pac-10 Tourney Three-Peat

With a 58-46 victory over Arizona State (22-9) Monday night at San Jose's HP Pavilion, Stanford (29-2) claimed their third consecutive Pac-10 Tournament crown and their 20th straight victory. While the victory wasn't the gem Cardinal faithful are used to seeing this season, the win shows that Stanford is capable of winning gritty games and demonstrates how valuable senior forward T'Nae Thiel is to this team.

Much like the 73-69 victory against USC the afternoon previous, Stanford allowed the Sun Devils to stay close early. The lead changed hands six times in the first 11 minutes, with neither team leading by more than five for the first 16 minutes of the contest. However, after facing a 16-14 deficit with nine minutes remaining in the half, Stanford managed to string together a 15-4 run to create some breathing room with a 29-20 halftime lead.

Statistically, the first half played out as one of the most bizarre stanzas in recent memory, with many key statistics pointing decidedly against the Cardinal. Of utmost concern, Stanford managed only 20 shots on the half. Stanford averaged 29.9 field goal attempts per half entering the game, and the 20 attempts marks the fewest shots the Cardinal have taken in a half the entire season. By means of contrast, Arizona State managed to launch 35 shots in the period and the 15-attempt disparity also set a season worst for the Cardinal.

Two glaring weaknesses directly contributed to this discrepancy in shot attempts. Stanford had problems boxing out on defensive rebounds, as the Cardinal and the Sun Devils both notched 13 rebounds on Stanford's defensive glass. Arizona State's offensive boards allowed the Sun Devils second, third, and even fourth chances to convert their possessions. Stanford's ball handling further hindered the Cardinal effort as Stanford managed 11 turnovers against one assist on the half.

Yet, even in the face of these horrific stats, Stanford led by nine at the break, with shooting percentage the primary explanation. On the half, the Cardinal converted 50% (10-of-20) of their shots, while the Sun Devils shot a paltry 25.7% (9-35), including 16.7% (2-12) beyond the arc. While Stanford's 50% accuracy on the half is right on par with their season average of 48% overall accuracy, the Cardinal marksmanship proved impressive against the Pac-10's stingiest scoring defense (54 points per game).

More surprising though was Arizona State's thoroughly mediocre offense. Give Stanford credit for keeping the Sun Devils off-balance with a combination of zone and man defenses, but Arizona State found plenty of open looks that they simply couldn't convert. Without the benefit of forward Kristen Kovesdy's 4-of-5 shooting in the low post, the Sun Devils posted a horrific 16.6% (5-30) before halftime.

Another factor that allowed the Cardinal to build their first-half lead were free throws. While Arizona State did not go to the line once in the stanza, redshirt sophomore forward Brooke Smith and sophomore Kristen Newlin drew Sun Devil fouls aplenty in the low post. Smith netted four free throws and Newlin added three as the Cardinal shot 7-of-9 from the charity stripe on the half.

After both teams had a chance to regroup in their locker rooms, the two squads played essentially evenly in the first ten minutes of the second half, with the Sun Devils tightening the 29-20 halftime margin to 38-32. However, three major runs would ultimately define the second half. The Card went on the first streak of the half, an 8-0 explosion in just 73 seconds. Three-pointers from fifth-year senior guard Susan King Borchardt and senior forward Sebnem Kimyacioglu sandwiched senior guard Kelley Suminski's lay-up.

The Sun Devils would immediately counter, scoring the next six points to close to 46-38 with six minutes remaining. Unfazed, Stanford responded and managed to hammer the proverbial nail into the coffin. The Card scored the next six points on Smith's lay-up, freshman guard Candice Wiggins' lay-up and two free throws from senior forward Azella Perryman. This final run positioned the Cardinal with a 52-38 lead with three minutes remaining, and Stanford would cruise to the 56-42 final margin.

Statistically, the game fared much more conventionally in the second half, as both teams posted identical 10-of-26 (38.5%) marks from the field. The Sun Devils notched "only" seven offensive rebounds after their 13 in the first stanza, and Stanford turned the ball over only five times while managing three assists on the period.

Nonetheless, the first half stats alone still managed to produce significantly skewed final numbers. On the game, Arizona State (19-of-61, 31.1%) launched 15 more shots than the Cardinal (20-of-46, 43.5%), who still managed to net one more field goal attempt. The Sun Devils pulled down 20 offensive boards and forced Stanford into 16 turnovers and only three assists, a .19 ratio. On the opposite note, Stanford notched 11 steals and made 12 free throws while the Sun Devils made only one - two factors that proved essential to the Cardinal victory.

Immediately after the game, Candice Wiggins received Pac-10 Tournament Most Valuable Player honors. Wiggins celebrated with the rest of her teammates, all of whom remained on the court for a good 20 minutes after the final buzzer. The Cardinal donned championship hats and tee shirts, partook in a trophy presentation and jubilantly cut down the nets. The vast majority of Stanford fans stayed in their seats and cheered loudly for the Card, often chanting "six more wins" in reference to the number of games Stanford must win to prevail in the NCAA Tournament.

For those six more wins to reach fruition, Stanford will likely need to win gritty games much like the victory they fashioned against the Sun Devils Monday night. Stanford has now won 20 consecutive games by an average of 22.8 points, and the Card's ability to win in a close, ugly game had been questioned before this tournament. However, after the Cardinal overcame an eight-point second-half USC lead in the semifinals and a statistical nightmare against Arizona State in the finals, Stanford has demonstrated definitively their ability to win grinding games, an ability that may do wonders for this team deep in the tournament.

On the negative side, the loss of T'Nae Thiel (fractured bone in left foot) has impacted the Cardinal more than many faithful would have hoped. A healthy Thiel in the lineup would have pulled down several boards herself and would have kept rebounds alive for her teammates to ultimately claim. With the senior on the court, Arizona State would have been hard-pressed to manage half of the 20 offensive rebounds they garnered in Thiel's absence.

Similarly, a healthy Thiel would have set picks in the high blocks, drawn away defenders from her teammates, and provided a legitimate scoring option herself, Stanford surely would not have managed only three assists versus 16 turnovers against the Sun Devils. With Thiel in the lineup, Stanford defeated Arizona State and USC by an average score of 79-58 over four meetings. Without Thiel, the average score tightens to 64-56.

Fortunately, Thiel should be healthy by the NCAA Tournament. Assuming the Card roll to an easy opening-round victory against an inferior opponent, Thiel may not see playing time in that first tournament game. However, the staff then plans to slowly work her back into the rotation so that she will have game experience before Stanford desperately needs her in a hard-fought game.

Freshman forward Jessica Elway should be healthy by the Cardinal's opening game. The staff plans to play her as much as game situations allow in order to provide her with experience in a NCAA Tournament atmosphere. The outlook is not as bright for fellow freshman forward Christy Titchenal, whose injury is now expected to cost her the remainder of the season.

Complete game box score

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 dannovi@stanford.edu.


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