Stanford edged clear of the University of Arizona in the second half Saturday on what was an emotional afternoon at the McKale Center. Senior Day is always emotional, but the game took on even greater significance as "00" of Shawntinice Polk, Arizona's star center who unexpectedly died back in September, was retired after the game.
The Wildcats played an inspired first half of basketball in memory of "Polkey" but could not keep up with Stanford's inside game after halftime. Stanford's hard fought 87-76 victory earned them a split on their trip down to the desert, maintaining the Pac-10 lead in the process and improving their conference record to 13-3. It was Arizona's eighth consecutive loss, obviously still reeling from the loss of their best player as well as the heart and soul of their team.
Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer explained the significance of the loss of Polkey. "(Coping with the loss of Polk) was a horrible situation. It's been a cloud over Arizona's head the whole season. Their team has handled it real well. I was real upset before the game just thinking about her."
Stanford center Brooke Smith struggled for words when she described her experience training with Polkey over the summer for the World University Games. While Smith made the cut and Polkey didn't make the team, they came to know each other during their time together in Colorado Springs.
"She was a great person, and I feel awful about what happened. My heart goes out to this team. They've come a long way for what they had to go through."
The first half was marked by numerous lead changes. The advantage changed 16 times to go along with six ties, all at a dizzying pace. If you have a heart condition or are pregnant, please do not read on without first consulting your doctor.
Stanford jumped ahead 5-0 to start the game behind the free throws and three-pointer of Candice Wiggins. However, Arizona responded with seven unanswered points - five coming from their own point guard, Natalie Jones.
Whenever the Cardinal seemed poised to take command, the Wildcats would hit a three-pointer. 3:53 into the game, Eziamaka Okafor fed Brooke Smith down low for a lay up to give Stanford a 9-7 lead. Two possessions later, Joy Hollingsworth pulled up from three and connected to give the advantage back to Arizona. Wiggins struck right back with a three-pointer and lay up.
The deluge of treys continued as Kelsey Burns got into the action from deep the next time Arizona had the ball to cut the Cardinal lead to one. Not to be outdone, Krista Rappahan hit a three from the left baseline on Stanford's ensuing possession. After the two teams had traded misses, Arizona arrested command from Stanford with three-pointers from Jones and Jessica Arnold.
Jillian Harmon, who started for Stanford for just the second time in the Cardinal's last seven games, came back with a lay up to tie the game at 19 before Amina Njonkou became the seventh player from either team to make a three-pointer. VanDerveer then called time out in an attempt to slow the pace of the game.
Two of the next three baskets for either team came from behind the arc, but then the pace did in fact begin to steady. The lead changed 10 more times but the game became less frantic.
Two free throws by Malia O'Neal made the score 40-39 in favor of Arizona with 1:42 on the clock, before Stanford closed the half with a mini-rally. The Wildcats tried to press the Cardinal, allowing Cissy Pierce to sneak away on the other end. She drove the ball and laid it off the glass for the final lead change before halftime. After a Joy Hollingsworth miss and Harmon rebound, Ashley Whisonant tried to draw a charge from Wiggins, only to have the call go against her. The Stanford sophomore sank both foul shots to give Stanford a three-point lead at 43-40, which would be the halftime score.
It wasn't until the second half that Stanford was able to take charge using their size and depth advantages. The glass would prove to be the Cardinal's friend, as they kept repeatedly pounding the ball down low. Brooke Smith quietly scored seven points in the first half, but it wasn't until after intermission that she made her presence felt. Smith, Harmon, and Kristen Newlin combined for 16 points off the glass in the second half.
"Arizona just didn't have the height," Harmon frankly offers. "We wanted to push it inside and they couldn't guard us down there."
A decrease in double-teaming by the Wildcats in the second half also contributed to Stanford's inside onslaught, Smith explains. "If they were doubling, we were passing out. If they weren't, we were going one-on-one down low." With Stanford's height advantage, the Cardinal were unstoppable underneath with one-on-one coverage.
Stanford also did a much better job defensively after the break. Arizona went 8-of-16 from deep in the first half but cooled down considerably in the second, shooting 3-of-13 from behind the arc. In an almost counter-intuitive manner, VanDerveer attributes this to a decision to change to zone defense.
"We played more zone in the second half. We were able to get out on shooters better. We didn't have to deal with as many screens. I think those threes were a wake-up call for our team."
Likewise, Arizona head coach Joan Bonvinci mentioned how the zone affected the Wildcat offensive attack.
"The key was when Stanford went to the zone in the second half. We didn't attack it as well as we should have."
The Cardinal slowly stretched the lead as the second half progressed. They took their largest lead of the afternoon at 16 with 6:32 left, when Harmon in-bounded to Newlin who converted down low to make the score 72-56.
Behind the drives of Natalie Jones, Arizona came within seven points with 1:47 to go but would not get any closer. Wiggins and Rosalyn Gold-Onwude combined to make six consecutive free throws, effectively sealing the game for the Cardinal.
Stanford returns to action next Thursday at Maples Pavilion when they host Washington. It will be Stanford's chance to avenge their 77-72 loss to the Huskies earlier this season in Seattle.
Candice Wiggins led Stanford with 24 points in Tucson on Saturday. Brooke Smith contributed 22 points, improving upon her effort against Arizona in January by four points. Jillian Harmon was one rebound shy of a double-double and added 15 points. Natalie Jones led all scorers with 27 points, aided by a 3-of-4 performance from beyond the arc.
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