This Sunday is the biggest game of the year in Maples Pavilion. Not just the biggest Stanford Women's Basketball game of the year. This is the biggest game across any sport to be held in Maples during the 2005-06 academic year.
It has been billed for months as the "Clash of the Champions." Stanford vs. Tennessee - the heavyweight fight that dares to outlast the Rocky saga. Tara VanDerveer and Pat Summitt have been locking horns in this home-and-home series since FDR warmed us with the Fireside Chats.
This year's edition does not disappoint, with a gaggle of gripping story lines that go beyond the rankings (#11 Stanford vs. #1 Tennessee, thanks for asking):
East meets West: The Lady Vols have been SEC (co-)champions seven of the last eight years, with the only miss coming last winter - when Tennessee still managed to win the SEC Tournament. The Cardinal have been Pac-10 (co-)champions the last five years.
Hall of Famers: Pat Summitt is the #1 active coach in Division I women's basketball with 888 wins and an .838 winning percentage. Tara VanDerveer is #3 with 638 and .788. These two coaches are the flag-bearers for the college game, and their longstanding mutual respect is why they travel across the country to play each other every year.
Candy Land: This game is the highly anticipated opportunity to watch Candice Wiggins and Candace Parker face off on the floor. More than just two players who too often have their names misspelled and mistaken for each other, these are the two brightest young stars in the sport. Cardinalmaniacs™ have become wonderfully familiar with Wiggins, but Sunday might be your first look at the unparalleled Parker. Yes, the 6'3" redshirt freshman forward can dunk (though not yet in a college game), but she is an out-of-this-world complete player. Her feel for the game matches her athleticism, and that's scary. Parker and Wiggins share not only the same age group, both Class of 2004 high school graduates. They are also the two young women on this planet who will take over and change the face of women's basketball. They will contest national championships in college. They will battle for WNBA crowns and MVP awards. They will stack Olympic and World Championship gold medals on their nightstand like you and I stack nickels and dimes at the end of our day.
The Streak: As great a rivalry as this game may be, with the above factors illustrating the point, Stanford-Tennessee battles have been decidedly one-sided. The Lady Vols have won 17 of the 21 match ups. Stanford has lost nine in a row, including three straight bitter, bitter defeats (VanDerveer calls them "devastating"). Last year in Knoxville, the Cardinal took their first loss of the year when Tennessee junior Shanna Zolman heaved a prayer at the buzzer that counted only after an official review of the tape. The last time these teams met at Maples in December 2003, Stanford squandered a 14-point lead in large part due to 20 turnovers against Tennessee's pressure, including LaToya Davis picking Kelley Suminski's pocket in the final minute for a game-tying lay-up. The game went to overtime, where the Lady Vols were victorious once again. Maybe the most painful of the three losses came later that season in the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament, where the two teams played for a berth in the Final Four. Tennessee took the lead with 1.6 seconds to go, and then senior Nicole Powell shot a three-point attempt at the buzzer in which she was apparently fouled, but there was no whistle.
There are so many angles and stories for this series, and this Sunday's game in particular. Two powerhouses collide. The Cardinal seek revenge.
But there is just one problem. Stanford isn't ready for this affair. The broken-record storyline you have read may be nauseating, but it is true. The Cardinal are a team led by two superstars, with a supporting cast mostly inexperienced and unprepared for a colossal collision like this. Beyond Candice Wiggins and Brooke Smith, the rest of the Stanford roster is young. Those Cardinal players are not all young in age, but they are green with their lack of experience. Only Kristen Newlin started any games on this roster before November. Clare Bodensteiner, Krista Rappahahn and Eziamaka Okafor are all in their fourth year on The Farm, but when have they ever been called into the spotlight with a game on the line? This is a team in progress, with more questions than answers.
"I call this team a cake in the oven because we're not done yet," VanDerveer describes. "You have to pull it out and check every once in a while. We'll find out a lot this Sunday."
One of the big question marks surrounds Stanford's biggest star: Candice Wiggins. VanDerveer has been open about her wish to play somebody else as the Cardinal's point guard, but Wiggins is the only option available. The six-foot wing is a natural scorer who can create, shoot and defend. But it is not her strength to set up the offense for others.
"She is going to grow a lot this year, but at times it is going to be painful," the Cardinal coach forecasts for Wiggins. "Last year, she came in and played with five seniors and Brooke. A lot of those players knew the system so well and played within themselves. This year, I feel like a mom who took off her winter coat and left her outside."
Stanford signed a pair of standout point guards last month, though they are still a year away from action on The Farm. "We have no choice this year," VanDerveer observes.
In another month or two, there could be some choices. Stanford has three players who VanDerveer is nurturing into the lead guard role. Freshman Rosalyn Gold-Onwude made her mark last Sunday in the Cardinal's close 66-63 win at Texas Tech, providing important minutes at the position in the second half and allowing Wiggins to play her more natural off-guard position. But VanDerveer is hesitant to push the NYC native, who has played little basketball since her junior year of high school, into the primary point guard role against the athleticism and experience of Tennessee. Junior Markisha Coleman is older and more familiar with VanDerveer's system and nuances, having made a great deal of progress since she walked on to the team two years ago, but Coleman crumbled with a costly turnover in her few seconds of action in Lubbock.
The wild card in the search for a point guard is... sophomore Cissy Pierce. VanDerveer likes the 5'10" wing's combination of ballhandling and athleticism, but Pierce missed most of the preseason with a broken elbow and is well behind where she and the coaches hoped for this game. The athletic sophomore has skills and playmaking knack, but transforming her into a point guard is a project.
The point guard situation is just one area emblematic of the "under construction" nature of this Stanford team. Most of the talents that coaches and fans hope will contribute this year are still finding their way in new roles, and in some cases in new positions. With lots of rough edges, the Cardinal will look out of sorts at times on Sunday against the #1-ranked Goliath. Of that, you can be sure. So VanDerveer says that Stanford has to execute as many of the little things as possible to improve their odds and hang tough: take care of the ball, make good decisions, rebound and box out.
"To give ourselves a chance against Tennessee, we have to play smart," she says. "They are the kind of team who can throw a knockout punch in round one."
Stanford also has to play physical basketball in the post, where they could potentially have their one advantage (aside from the home court and crowd) over the Lady Vols. Pat Summitt has lambasted her team for not rebounding well enough and threatened earlier this week to change her three-guard starting lineup if Tennessee did not clean the glass well enough against Texas. Well, her girls responded last night with a dominant 45-25 rebounding margin. Whether Summitt's concerns in this category can be taken at face value or not, Stanford is playing its best basketball in the post that we have seen in nearly a decade. A healthier Kristen Newlin plus a (finally) healthy Eziamaka Okafor are two big reasons why the Cardinal are averaging 46.4 boards per game. As a reference point, Stanford averaged 39.5 rebounds a year ago.
If the Lady Vols hit the glass Sunday afternoon the way they did last night, the Cardinal could find themselves with little to hang their hat in this matchup. There is always room for an upset, and this one would buck big odds, but the final score on the new Maples Pavilion jumbotron is not where fans should look for this game. Stanford admittedly is not ready at this point in the season with their young and evolving roster. Instead, this is a crucible game for the Cardinal. Their future in March will be forged in no small part by the tests and travails they endure on Sunday. Even if Stanford loses by 12 points, the 9-0 run they muster after a Tennessee surge will be remembered and repeated in the season-defining games in conference play and the post-season.
"What do you do? Not play them and play somebody else?" VanDerveer says of the Tennessee matchup. "They're out there, and I cannot think of any other team that helps us get ready better than playing them."
"It is more about how you play and what you learn at this point in the season, rather than whether you win or lose."
- The wild card in tonight's game may not be athleticism, transition and turnovers. Instead, it may be three-point shooting. Traditionally an advantage for the Cardinal in matchups of these two teams, it was the Lady Vols last night in a 102-61 pasting of #18 Texas who shot 11-of-19 from outside the arc. Stanford will need to defend the perimeter well on Sunday, but they also will need to step up their outside offense. Gone are the Card's top long-range assassins of a year ago: Kelley Suminski and Susan Borchardt averaged a combined 3.6 made three-pointers per game and shot 42% and 47%, respectively. The greatest hope for the new-look home team on Sunday may be senior Krista Rappahahn, who last night in Stockton hit a career-best five three-pointers... in just six attempts. Rappahahn is shooting a sizzling 63.2% from deep this season. She has done her best work, however, against Stanford's weakest opponents. In her two games against ranked opponents, the senior has made just 1-of-6 combined from deep.
- Junior forward/center Kristen Newlin has registered three double-doubles already this season in scoring and rebounding. All three of those performances came in the opponent's arena. In home/neutral site games, Newlin is averaging 7.5 points and 5.5 rebounds. In away games, the 6'5" post is averaging 13.0 points and 13.7 rebounds. That is a trend that will need to change Sunday when Newlin and the Cardinal play at home.
- Despite the discussion above about Wiggins not naturally suited to play as a point guard, she should be credited for making a significant improvement in her decision-making this year. Last year as a freshman, she was plagued with turnover trouble. Wiggins finished the year with a negative assist-to-turnover ratio and averaged 2.9 turnovers per game. This season, the sophomore has 16 assists against 10 turnovers (2.0 per game).
- It is hard to argue against the strength of Stanford's schedule this year. This is their third ranked opponent in a span of 15. The Cardinal play just one more non-conference game (vs. Rice) before they start Pac-10 play on December 20, but Stanford will squeeze a trip to Boston College just after Christmas. The Eagles stand just outside the Top 25 today, with a 6-1 record and their only loss at Connecticut.
- Of their five games thus far this season, Stanford has played only one at home. Sunday's game at Maples Pavilion will be a welcome homecoming for both the team and their hungry fans.
- Since the Cardinal cut down the nets with their National Championship in 1992, Tara VanDerveer has lost very few games at Maples Pavilion. You can count them on your fingers and toes. Pat Summitt is responsible for 27% of those losses (four of 15), a staggering number.
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