The last couple months have been a grand USA Basketball feel-good story for Stanford Women's Basketball. The Cardinal were richly represented at both the U18 and U20 national team tryouts, with all four of its incoming freshman plus two of its sophomores invited to the select groups. Throw in a handful of high school standouts in the Cardinal cross hairs, and it has been a dizzying spring and summer already keeping track of present, future and hopeful Stanford women.
There was, however, one event that transpired at the May 18-21 trials in Colorado Springs for the USA U20 Championship Team that cast a dark cloud over all the merriment. Stanford sophomore point guard Rosalyn Gold-Onwude injured her knee at the U.S. Olympic Training Center. "Knee" has been truly a four-letter word for the Queens (N.Y.) native, who had her senior season at Archbishop Molloy High School wrecked by an injury in December 2004 that kept her from playing basketball through the summer of 2005. The point guard had scarcely played since her junior year of high school when she started her freshman campaign for the Cardinal last fall, marking her as a question mark for the team and coaching staff.
All Gold-Onwude did by year's end was start 23 games as a freshman, averaging 3.4 assists per game while holding a 1.6 assist-to-turnover ratio. The 5'10" floor general also proved to be modest scoring threat, shooting 39.1% from deep and averaging 5.1 points per game. Most important was the relief that the freshman provided to sophomore superstar Candice Wiggins, who early in the season was starting and playing big minutes at the point guard position. The Cardinal did not play its best basketball with those lineups, losing four of its first 10 games and plummeting in the rankings.
Gold-Onwude, along with frosh classmate Jillian Harmon, stepped up their roles and play as Father Time turned the calendar to 2006, and the rest was history. Stanford ran roughshod through the Pac-10, claiming their sixth straight Pac-10 Championship on the back of a 15-2 finish to the regular season starting December 30. After a momentary slip in the Pac-10 Tournament final game, the Cardinal then played to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament and only missed the Final Four on a last-second controversial call. She had her ups and downs, but Gold-Onwude was a steady guard for Stanford atop their triangle offense, allowing Wiggins to more often play off the ball and focus on scoring and defense. Starting with that December 30 game vs. USC, Wiggins went on a tear the final three months of the season that saw her score more than 20 points in 17 of the final 24 games and average 23.6 points, after averaging 17.3 points through the first 10 games.
There was great optimism that a returning Cardinal backcourt of Gold-Onwude and Wiggins would continue and surpass that run of success in the 2006-07 season. Particularly with the two guards expected to enjoy better health and preparation to start the fall. Wiggins played all of last season with painful and limiting plantar fasciitis in both of her feet, while Gold-Onwude started her first collegiate season without the conditioning, timing or skill level that comes with playing during the spring and summer. Wiggins has stayed off the court the last few months, and her feet are feeling much better. But the new knee injury for Gold-Onwude obliterates her plans for the coming season.
The injury was diagnosed by Stanford team doctor and orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Michael Dillingham, as an ACL tear. Dillingham recommended prompt repair surgery, to begin the rehabilitation process for Gold-Onwude's return to the court. The injury occurred in May, but Gold-Onwude has returned to New York, elected for a second opinion and delayed her surgery. Repair surgery may now come in mid-July, which will push her return to the court further into the future. Until she goes under the knife, we cannot know when to expect Gold-Onwude to next play in a Stanford uniform, but we do know that Stanford is staring at a very different point guard picture for the 2006-07 season.
Wiggins could of course return to the lead guard position, but the Cardinal worked hard last year to find somebody else to take primary ballhandling and distribution responsibilities so that Wiggins could maximize her effectiveness elsewhere on the court. Senior Markisha Coleman and junior Cissy Pierce are candidates, though they were also candidates for the position last winter and played limited roles. Both did have very encouraging spring practices, however, which leaves the players and their coaches confident and optimistic about their elevated contributions in the coming season.
It is often foolish to bet against veteran returning players in favor of untested incoming freshmen, but that is our thinking for the point guard position for Stanford in the 2006-07 season. JJ Hones (#32) and Melanie Murphy (#49) are both Top 50 players from the 2006 recruiting class, but more than just a ranking, both are heady floor generals who "get it" at a level different from most guards coming out of high school. That was evident in the pair's respective recent USA Basketball experiences. Murphy was the most recent to play in Colorado Springs, at the U18 tryouts earlier this month.
"It was overall a good experience to be there. There were good competitors," Murphy says. "It was a good beginner's look at what the competition is going to be like in college. It's definitely tougher. It takes getting used to."
Though she started a little slowly, Murphy became more comfortable with the players with each passing day. On the final day, she was teamed with Cardinal classmate Jayne Appel, the 6'4" center sensation. It was a dream world for Murphy to be pair with such a premier post - all the more exciting that four full years of that opportunity lie ahead.
"We played on the same team the last day, and we won all three of our games," the point guard reports. "I think we played well together."
"She is a very good post offensively," Murphy continues. "She has a lot of good moves. If I need a quick bucket, I just get the ball into her. That's not what I'm used to [laughs]. I don't normally have a good post on my team."
Murphy is a point guard who distributes the ball unselfishly, as her first and foremost goal on the court. That set her apart from the other ballhandlers at the U18 tryouts, who wanted to drive or shoot the ball like it was their last game on Earth. That could be viewed for Murphy as a positive or as a negative, depending on your point of view. For Tara VanDerveer, the Cardinal coach who is also a selector for USA Basketball and was in attendance, the play of her freshman point guard was a positive. There was, however, some feedback that Murphy and many players in Colorado Springs received from the coaching legend.
"The committee showed me that I need to be able to shoot the ball," Murphy shares. "Tara also told me what I need to work on. She said that I need to work on my shooting - the three-point shot. I kind of already knew that, but I think it was helpful for her to see me play and give me feedback."
"[VanDerveer] addressed all of us and asked us to stand up if we wanted to play with USA Basketball in the future. Everybody stood up," she continues. "Then she asked who takes 100 three's a day. 90 percent of us sat down."
The next day, back home in Brooklyn (N.Y.), Murphy fired up close to 400 shots. She is aiming to take 400-500 jumpers each day, intent on shoring up this area of her game. An athletic and smooth ballhandler who excels at driving with the basketball, Murphy has not had a history of perimeter shooting. She says that the good news from her Colorado Springs experience is that she saw her peers, the best players in her age group in the nation, similarly short in this skill.
"That gave me the motivation that I can catch up," Murphy maintains. "I'm not that far behind everybody, and if I work at it, I can even pass them."
There is additional motivation for Murphy this summer with the injury to her friend, teammate and fellow New Yorker in Gold-Onwude. Murphy had already been working tirelessly since the completion of her high school senior season. She has been lifting weights, training for agility and quickness at Velocity Sports Performance, and at nights running at a nearby track. There was no lack of urgency in her workouts, but now the bar has been raised a higher.
"I think it puts me a little more on the spot," Murphy admits. "Whether Ros was hurt or not, I would have gone in and still tried to improve myself."
The good news is that Murphy and Hones, along with classmates Appel and Michelle Harrison, are all on campus for the summer. They moved in Sunday and today start their first day of classes at Stanford. Murphy is still focused on studying business and has a course each of calculus and economics for eight units during this summer quarter. Hones is attacking a 10-unit intensive French class. The summer school enrollment is a tremendous head start for all four of Stanford's new freshmen to become acclimated to the campus and its academic environment, while also allowing them to play and train together and with their new Cardinal teammates every day. That experience would have eased and accelerated their transition as freshmen - itself a worthy benefit. But for Hones and Murphy, with the point guard pressure now greatly elevated, the basketball chemistry and development this summer will be hugely valuable for the coming season.
Moreover, these two floor generals will be cohabitating. Indeed, the point guard pair are summer roommates. They talked excitedly in the days leading up to Sunday's move-in, going through a checklist of who would bring what to their shared dorm room. Murphy is also making sure to bring her teddy bear, and a box full of her headbands. She has 30 or so of them, you know.
"I've got a lot of white ones, but I have to get some more red ones," she laughs.
"JJ seems really cool. It will be fun rooming together," Murphy says. "We may play the same position and compete on the court, and we can push each other. But we want to make each other better. It will be great to go play together and work out together. She seems like a hard worker, so we can go to the gym and shoot together."
Shooting was a theme Hones heard as well from VanDerveer after her U20 tryouts in May, making her similarly motivated to hit the gym with Murphy this summer.
"[VanDerveer] said that she was happy with how I played, but that my shooting didn't help me," Hones reports. "She was happy with passing, though, and my play overall."
"Even though I didn't make the team, I am really glad that I did it because of the competition," she adds. "I was able to play against Camille LeNoir and Alexis Gray-Lawson and other extremely good point guards. It was good to know that I could play against them because I didn't think that I could."
Of the 38 players at the U20 tryouts, only five were high school seniors like Hones who had yet to start college. The rest were at the end of their freshman, or in several cases sophomore, seasons. It was a rare experience for Hones to test herself against not just her peers, but against proven college standout stars.
"In high school, I was always bigger than the person I played against," the Oregonian explains. "I think it's impossible to muscle up Alexis, so I realized that I had to really take it to her. I had to be more physical. That was a great learning experience."
Hones understates her performance at the USA Basketball tryouts. The question mark people see with her is quickness, but she defended Gray-Lawson and LeNoir as if she were already a college player. The lateral quickness and strength were there to go toe-to-toe against those premier players. Part of that credit has to go to the intense strength and conditioning work Hones has undertaken this off-season.
"I train every day after school," she shares. "Also on Tuesdays and Thursdays I do a basketball clinic, and Mondays and Wednesdays I do the SAQ sort of thing at Velocity - quickness and speed training. I lift weights, do resistance running and resistance jumping."
"I think I was definitely in shape," Hones says of her U20 tryouts in Colorado Springs. "The altitude didn't affect me like it did the year before. Last year I felt winded after the first time I ran down the court."
Offensive, Hones made her mark by leading the entire U20 Trials roster in assists, which made both VanDerveer and her floor general proud.
"It just helped contribute to the idea that I was able to play with and against other great players," Hones offers. "Obviously they had to make their shots for me to get the assists. I couldn't control my shooting, but I could control my passing and my work ethic. I didn't score, but I passed really well. I had some great players on the court, and setting them up made me just as happy."
Her focus this summer is overall skill development and shooting. While Hones knows that she will not be Krista Rappahahn, she says she would like to be a Kelley Suminski. Most important, though, is her opportunity to develop a chemistry with her new teammates.
"It will be big obviously to develop relationships with the players," Hones opines. "I want to find out what people can and cannot do at spots on the floor. On my high school team, I had been playing with a lot of those girls since the seventh grade."
Hones had a taste, playing with Harrison in Colorado Springs in May. She also was able to play some pickup basketball earlier in the spring when she, Murphy and Appel all convened on the Cardinal campus during Admit Weekend.
"Melanie, Jayne and me - we hung out two or three times," Hones recalls. "Our personalities don't clash. She's real cool. I'm excited to room with her."
And how about the heated competition that the two will soon share for the starting point guard position?
"I think that me and Mel right now are very different point guards," Hones offers. "She does a great job at driving and creating, and right now I don't really do that at all. We both want the best for Stanford. We can can learn from each other."
It will be anything but a lazy summer for these two new freshmen as they room, study, train, shoot and compete together. The expectations for Stanford this coming season will be nothing short of a Final Four, with as good a shot at the National Championship as anybody in the nation. Point guard suddenly becomes the biggest question mark on a team loaded with the most talent seen on The Farm in a decade, but both Melanie Murphy and JJ Hones are eager to turn that into an exclamation point. And to do it together.
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