It was not supposed to end this way for No. 11 Stanford. Not after demolishing Arizona and USC by an average of 28 points in the previous two rounds of the Pac-10 Tournament. Not after possessing a second-half 13-point lead over UCLA in the finale of the three-day event. Not after the one-two punch of redshirt junior Brooke Smith and sophomore Candice Wiggins combining to torch the Bruins for 45 points. And yet, UCLA managed to take its first Pac-10 Tournament title in stunning fashion with an 85-76 overtime victory, just a day after an exhausting 60-59 triumph over No. 15 Arizona State, thereby earning the league's automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament.
Countering Stanford's Dynamic Duo was UCLA's own collection of superstars, otherwise known as The Triple Threat. Tournament MVP and senior Lisa Willis paced her squad with an excellent all-around effort to the tune of 20 points, six steals, five rebounds, and four assists, while Bruin junior Noelle Quinn had a team-high 22 points, including scoring the final seven points in regulation to put the game into overtime. Senior point guard Nikki Blue directed the potent offense, dishing out eight assists while chipping in 14 points.
"They were just really explosive on offense. I thought Nikki Blue played really well, as did Noelle Quinn and Lisa Willis. Their Big Three came to play," said Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer after the game. "They made some big, momentum plays… I don't think there is any shame in losing to a team with three first round [WNBA] draft picks."
In a game featuring such great individual talent from both sides of the court, it was the Triple Threat that was able to come through in the clutch, providing Blue with what she declared "the greatest win of my career." While the sweet post moves of Smith and the inside-outside scoring ability of Wiggins allowed Stanford (23-7) to jump out to 13-point leads in both the first and second halves, it was the timely shooting touch of Quinn and the long three-point baskets by Willis that enabled UCLA (20-10) to push through in the end.
Trailing by seven with just 1:49 left in the ball game, Quinn went to work as she cut the lead to 70-65 with an inside basket among a sea of Cardinal & White. UCLA got the ball back after forcing a jump ball on Stanford's ensuing possession, and Quinn converted on a three-point play to cut the lead to two. A missed three-pointer by Wiggins with 20 seconds remaining gave UCLA the ball, setting up the final play during regulation. Quinn then nailed a 10-foot jumper to send the game into overtime.
Although Quinn has to be credited with giving UCLA a new lease on life, the comeback would not have been made possible without the sharp shooting abilities of Willis, who nailed bombs well beyond the three-point line. Every time it seemed that Stanford was pulling away or gaining momentum after a made basket, Willis kept her team within striking distance with a trey that silenced the mainly pro-Stanford crowd.
UCLA did not capture its tournament crown without some help from its bench. Sophomore Lindsey Pluimer and freshman Chinyere Ibekwe provided an offensive spark in the paint, with 16 and eight points, respectively, but it was really their defense that stood out. In the beginning of the game, Stanford was pounding the ball inside, and Smith was scoring at will with a variety of post moves. However, UCLA adjusted to its game plan to limit the 6'3" center's touches and her ability to score.
"I was a little worried at the beginning of the game when Brooke scored, scored, scored. I thought our post players did an incredible job and made adjustments," offered UCLA head coach Kathy Olivier. "Lindsay Pluimer was battling the entire game. She had great defensive positioning on Brooke, who is a great player."
UCLA's excellent defense was not just limited to the paint, however, as its trapping schemes and building intensity in the latter stages of the game caused many problems for Stanford's ballhandlers, namely freshman Rosalyn Gold-Onwude and Wiggins. VanDerveer cited her team's inability to run the offense in face of such intense pressure as a main reason for the Cardinal's downfall. Freshman Tiarra Henderson did an excellent job on Wiggins in the final minutes of the game, not allowing the two-time Pac-10 Player of the Year to have a free pass up the court and pestering her into making bad decisions with the ball.
Stanford's lack of offense was most notable during the overtime period, where it went nearly four minutes without making a field goal, allowing UCLA to end the game on an 11-2 run. Even after Wiggins made two free throws off of Willis' fifth foul at the 1:59 mark to knot the score at 76-76, the Cardinal were unable to take advantage of the Bruins star's absence. In the end, Stanford shot an abysmal 2-of-10 from the floor in the extended five minutes of play.
"We were playing so well at the time that I knew we could handle it," described Willis regarding her fifth foul. "I knew the team would step it up, and whoever came in for me, I knew there would be no drop-off. There was no doubt in my mind."
The game opened up with Smith asserting herself immediately inside, scoring six points all within the first two minutes to open up an early 8-4 lead. In fact, most of Stanford's points came within the paint, as the first five three-point attempts taken were off base. It wasn't until there was 11:34 remaining in the first half that a three-pointer tickled the twine, courtesy of Wiggins.
Krista Rappahahn was anxiously waiting in the wings to hit her treys, as she had the opportunity to tie Jamie Carey's single season-school record for three-point baskets. After missing on her first two, the senior guard finally connected from long range with a little over 10 minutes left in the first half. Rappahahn would end up breaking Carey's record with a 3-of-7 performance from beyond the arc, pushing her season total to 83 three-point field goals. With the shots beyond the arc finally starting to fall, in conjunction with a powerful inside game, Stanford held a comfortable lead for much of the opening half. UCLA kept itself within striking distance, however, with Quinn's last-second driving lay-up that cut the score to 31-25 heading into the locker room.
In the second half, Stanford continued to keep a healthy margin via offensive contributions from other players, such as Gold-Onwude and junior forward Kristen Newlin. In fact, Newlin showed the versatility in her game by making two three-point baskets of her own; she finished with 10 points in the game. In addition, aggressive rebounding and good positioning under the net by the Cardinal allowed them to control the Bruins' second-chance attempts. However, after a three-pointer by Wiggins at the 14:11 mark in the second half pushed Stanford's lead up to 13, UCLA started its rally, beginning with a rare four-point play on the following possession by Blue. The Bruins began to chip away at their deficit until the final moments, when Quinn was able to complete the comeback and push the contest to overtime.
While UCLA enters the Big Dance with a boatload of confidence by virtue of two Top 15 wins in the Pac-10 Tournament, many will question Stanford's ability to bounce back from such a defeat. However, Wiggins insisted that the team is still confident in their abilities, and while the loss was disappointing, they will be focusing on just one thing the next two weeks: the NCAA Tournament.
"We definitely learned a lot from this. Just the fact of losing – it's painful. We are all competitive, and I think this is going to make us even more tough," revealed Wiggins. "We are really focused on what's right in front of us, which is the [NCAA] Tournament. I know I am still excited about it. We are still very confident."
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