Anatomy of the End

As Michigan State moves on to a national semifinal against Tennessee, Stanford too attempts to move on following its 32-3 season, a season that ended with a 76-69 regional final loss to Michigan State. In the end, the Spartans showed too much poise and too much beef inside for the Card to overcome. Here is an exploration of how the disheartening loss unfolded.

Michigan State started the game with an 8-0 lead off five points from senior guard Kristin Haynie and three from junior forward Liz Shimek. Six consecutive Cardinal points closed the gap, and Stanford led by as many as three before settling for a 28-28 halftime tie. On the period, Shimek, Haynie and sophomore guard Rene Haynes combined for all but two Spartan points, while seven Cardinal combined for Stanford's 28 points. Stanford was only tied at the half despite shooting 15% better (46% vs. 31%) from the field than the Spartans – a worrisome statistic to Cardinal faithful who wondered what would happen if those percentages evened out. The Spartans managed nine more field goal attempts on the half than the Cardinal, thanks in large part to forcing eight turnovers while yielding only two.

The second half started in much the same manner as the first, as Michigan State again scored the first eight points and increased their lead to as many as 13, largely on the strength of uncontested buckets in transition. Although the Cardinal consistently performed well on the offensive end, the defensive intensity often waned, as the 19-2 Spartan edge in fast break points would suggest. Nonetheless, Stanford mustered the will of a champion and tore off a 15-2 run to tie the game at 57. Senior center Kelli Roehrig sat on the bench with three fouls for most of the Cardinal run, and Roehrig's return to the lineup marked the beginning of the end for the Cardinal, with Michigan State reclaiming a 68-64 lead.

After redshirt sophomore center Brooke Smith's lay-up cut the Spartan lead to 68-66 with 1:25 to play, Michigan State needed a bucket just as desperately as the Cardinal needed a stop. What happened in the ensuing possession not only provided the Spartans with enough breathing room to still lead after Candice Wiggins' gutsy dribble drive, lay-up and free throw, but also exemplified how the Spartans earned their Final Four berth. To the surprise of absolutely no one, the Spartans fed the ball down low to Roehrig, challenging Stanford's interior defense with the game on the line. And just like she had so many other times that Tuesday night, the effusive Nebraskan rose to the occasion. Roehrig nailed a five-foot left-handed hook, a shot so perfectly shielded by Roehrig's wide frame that all any Cardinal defender could possibly hope to lay on the ball was her eyes.

That clutch shot wasn't a fluke, for the Spartans would find points inside seemingly every time they needed a bucket. Stanford rallied from as many as 13 down to tie the game three times in the second half, but each time Michigan State responded with a score from their inside game: a lay-up and two sets of free throws earned by attacking the hoop. Roehrig ended the game with 10 points and eight boards, while Shimek finished with 24 points and 10 rebounds.

While the Spartan posts were a known threat coming into the game, Michigan State's guards gave Stanford unexpected trouble – especially Haynie and Haynes, who exploited Cardinal freshman guard Candice Wiggins and senior guard Kelley Suminski, respectively. The Spartan duo combined for 34 points and 7-of-9 three-point shooting, surprising numbers against a Stanford team thought to be second-to-none in the backcourt. Despite allowing Stanford 41 points in the second half, the Spartans never once trailed in the final stanza, a testament to their ability to consistently drain clutch buckets, both inside and out.

Contrast the Spartans' steady inside game with the inconsistency of the Cardinal's perimeter shooting. Stanford missed five of their first six three-point attempts in the second half, allowing Michigan State to build its 13-point lead. In the last seven minutes, the Cardinal shot five threes with the Spartans leading by no more than four. Stanford missed all five attempts. Most notably, in one of their rare mistakes the entire evening, the Spartans inexplicably left Suminski, a 43.4% three-point shooter on the season, open for the potential game-tying triple with 22 seconds to go. Suminski's attempt hit both rims but rattled out, capping a 1-of-8 deep night for her. Stanford shot 8-of-23 (34.8%) from beyond the arc on the game and only 4-of-15 (26.7%) in the second half, all but icing the Spartan victory. In a game of inches, every key Spartan shot rimmed in while every key Cardinal shot rimmed out, leaving the Cardinal a whisker behind the Spartans.

Give the Spartans credit. Michigan State looked sloppy in previous Tournament victories against USC and Vanderbilt, but when the lights shone the brightest, so too did the Spartans' performance. In the second half, Michigan State shot 47% from the field, 57% from three-point range and 86% from the free throw line, marks even the sharp-shooting Cardinal would envy in nearly any contest. The Spartans also finished with 20 assists against only five turnovers, exemplary ball-handling that carved up Stanford for 48 second-half points and 76 total, the most Stanford allowed all year.

Stanford did finish with 69 points, nearly 15 more than Michigan State allows on average, suggesting that all was not bleak for the Cardinal. The senior-laden squad still might have been able to win had they run into an equally talented team with a different composition. Whereas Michigan State presented Roehrig and Shimek, two posts that each qualify as a defensive stalwart and a top-notch offensive threat, Stanford's primary two posts – Smith and T'Nae Thiel – are not as complete players.

Smith, while a prolific scorer, struggled defensively against the larger, more aggressive Spartan posts. When Thiel, Smith, Roehrig and Shimek were all in the game, Smith would be forced to guard one of the Spartans' posts. Michigan State would consistently feed the ball down low against Smith and most often find success, as Shimek's and Roehrig's combined 34 points, eight free throw attempts and 18 rebounds suggest. This mismatch was one of several Spartan head coach Joanne P. McCallie exploited against the Cardinal; the others: Haynie on Wiggins and Haynes on Suminski. While Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer could rotate fifth-year senior guard and defensive standout Susan King Borchardt onto the hot Spartan guards, Stanford had no answer available on the roster to fully counter the Spartans' dual inside presence.

Furthermore, the Spartans' interior presence had negative effects on Stanford's offensive end as well. Roehrig and Shimek necessitated two post defenders in the game for the Cardinal, but the resulting roster need often stalled the Cardinal attack. As Tara VanDerveer explained in her press conference, Michigan State would play loose on the Stanford "four" when Stanford inserted two posts into the lineup. Stanford's fours - Thiel, senior forward Azella Perryman and sophomore center Kristen Newlin - are each far inferior offensively to the other four Cardinal most often on the court – Smith, Wiggins, Borchardt and Suminski.  Michigan State's defense perfectly exploited this weakness. The defense would encourage the weaker four to shoot, and penalize Stanford if she didn't, for the Spartans had a 5-4 advantage on the other players. The scheme caught the Cardinal between a proverbial rock and a hard place, as Newlin, Thiel and Perryman only hurt the Cardinal by shooting (the trio finished 2-of-10 for eight points) and played right into the Spartans' hands by passing.

As the game plans suggest, Coach McCallie designed and executed a nearly flawless game. While the head coach at Maine, McCallie also knocked off the more highly touted Cardinal in the 1999 NCAA Tournament. If the fifth-year Spartan head coach exhibits similar wizardry in the Final Four, more highly touted Tennesee, LSU and Baylor all may have another thing coming.

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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