Hard to Stomach

It cannot compare with a close loss in the postseason - the stakes were not as high. But Stanford's loss on Sunday at Georgia painfully dropped the Cardinal to 2-3. This team was pegged for Cleveland, and they might still reach that goal, but their outing in Athens highlighted an excrutiating set of challenges they are creating for themselves in some skilled aspects of the game.

We often describe college basketball games as "a tale of two halves," with differing dynamics and evolving complexities in the match-up and flow.  In this game, however, there was a pattern in the first half similarly repeated in the second.  After a sluggish start for both teams, tying the game at 14-14, Georgia took off on a 14-4 run to grab a 10-point lead.  Stanford missed just about every jumpshot imaginable in the opening stanza, missing their first seven three-pointers and converting only lay-ups for a span of more than 10 minutes.

Megastar and Stanford junior Candice Wiggins was shutout altogether from the scoring column, missing her first five shots from the field in the opening 13 and a half minutes.  Then she found a seam in the Bulldogs defense pushing in transition for a lay-in.  Stanford cut the lead to six points at 30-24 with a steal by sophomore Jillian Harmon, which she took promptly the other direction for another lay-up on the break.  The Cardinal watched the deficit return, however, after a pair of ugly offensive possessions.  Fifth-year senior Clare Bodensteiner launched an airball three-point attempt, and soon thereafter freshman Jayne Appel tossed a turnover passing on the perimeter, which Georgia took the other way for an easy lay-in and their largest lead of the game at 11 points.

The Cardinal came out of the four-minute media timeout and ignited their best run of the half, starting with a pull-up jumper at the elbow by Wiggins at 3:37.  The last Stanford jumpshot to go down came by Harmon's hands at 13:49.  After the two teams traded baskets, Stanford hit another jumper, this one a quick-trigger triple from Wiggins in transition just inside the two-minute mark.  It took Stanford more than 18 minutes to hit a shot outside the arc, which would be a problem area repeated in the second half.  Ironically, the Cardinal collected their next basket a little over a minute later with a three-pointer from 6'3" fifth-year senior Brooke Smith.  Suddenly, the game was down to four points in the final minute.  Georgia traveled and turned the ball over, giving Stanford the last possession of the half.  Freshman point guard JJ Hones worked the ball to Appel on the high block with six seconds before halftime, which the 6'4" center converted smoothly with a drop-step and shot off the glass.

Incredibly, the Cardinal trailed by just two points, 38-36, after margins of 10 and 11 points for much of the half.  Stanford spirits were rising.

The late-charging Stanford spurt provided hope, but underlying were a series of troubling failures.  Stanford could not shoot the ball, particularly from deep.  That was statistically evident.  More global and troubling was the opportunities which players availed of themselves to score.  Feeds into the low post were difficult, and perimeter players failed to drive to the basket as well as hit their shots.  It appeared that many of those first seven missed three-pointers were not shot in rhythm.  The Stanford offense last year was magnificent in providing open looks, with a chance for the player to set her feet and square her body.  That was rarely found in this Athens outing.

The lack of drives to the basket also resulted in zero free throw attempts for Stanford in the first half.  For all of the Cardinal's shooting woes, they most obviously failed to get to the stripe.  Georgia attempted 12 free throws, hitting nine.  Stanford would pick up a little slack in the second half, though finding a new and more magnificent failure at the charity line...

First, Stanford dug itself a second-half hole faster and deeper than the one it occupied in the opening stanza.  The Cardinal bricked their first three attempts from the field, while the Dawgs hit shots and free throws to quickly stretch the two-point lead to nine points.  Smith answered with a turnaround jumper just inside the elbow at 17:32, but a another drought for Cardinal jumpshots followed.  Stanford would not hit a jumper for the next six and a half minutes.  They started the second half missing their first five shots from downtown, while Georgia hit its first two triples and eight of their first 13 overall attempts from the field.

Stanford trailed by as many as 14 points and spent large stretches down by double digits.  They tried mixing things up.  Senior Markisha Coleman came into the game at point guard to provide quickness and a spark on the defensive end.  The Cardinal coaches played (we believe) for the first time this year the "triple towers" lineup of Smith, Appel and 6'5" senior Kristen Newlin.  Stanford gave a look to their zone defense, and they also employed full-court trapping pressure.

Coleman paid an immediate dividend with a steal that lead to a 2-on-1 fast break, which ended with Wiggins fouled at the basket.  With 12:33 left in the game - in the 28th minute of regulation, Stanford shot its first free throws of the day.  Wiggins converted both, which perhaps provided false hope for an uptick in production at the stripe.

Stanford had a chance to bring the margin to single digits when Smith was fouled going to the basket soon thereafter, but skilled fifth-year senior rattled both attempts out.  It was a scene for Stanford to repeat throughout the remainder of the half, ultimately to their doom.

On Stanford's next possession, Coleman dished to Wiggins, who canned a long three-pointer to cut the lead to eight points.  But lapses cost the Cardinal their momentum.  Georgia inbounded to halfcourt with five seconds left on the shot clock and managed an uncontested lay-up.  Wiggins was whistled for a charge the other way.  Then Stanford tried their zone defense, which immediately gave Georgia an open three-point basket after a Harmon mistake.

Wiggins continued her hot streak, however, hitting a three-pointer to cut the deficit down to 10.  Stanford made a stop on the defensive end and sent Newlin to the free throw line, but she rimmed both attempts eerily similar to Smith's misses.  Soon it was Newlin's turn at the charity stripe with a bonus opportunity, missing the front end off the back iron.  Next: Wiggins.  She hit 1-of-2 at the 6:49 mark, with the make the last Stanford would convert in the game.

The supersized lineup of Smith, Newlin and Appel may have combined for 0-of-5 at the line while together on the court, which ultimately was the difference in the game, but they defended and rebounded nicely in the halfcourt.  Georgia scored just two baskets during those nearly three minutes.  One was the three-pointer against a zone error.  The second was a lay-in achieved only after a Georgia player tossed Smith to the ground without a whistle.

Hones substituted at the eight-minute media timeout for Newlin.  Georgia next score in transition when Stanford tried its full-court trap for one possession, but Georgia split Wiggins and Harmon to start the fast break, which finished with a 3-on-2 jumper off the glass.

The lead grew back to 11 points, and then Stanford started to outhustle and outmuscle the tiring home team.  Georgia came into the game with a playing roster just seven deep, and an injury in the second half trimmed that further.  Wiggins took over around the five-minute mark, first with a lay-in that terminated a possession with four Stanford shots.  The next trip down the floor, Wiggins drained an open three-pointer.  Suddenly, the electric junior had 21 points and Stanford trailed by just six points, 66-60.

Smith swatted a jump shot the next defensive possession, and then she hit a wide-open lay-in off the glass from a Newlin high post feed.  The visitors were roaring back.

Then it was Wiggins again, this time hitting a 23-foot bomb to trim the game to a single point.  This was as close as the Cardinal had been since 18-17 early in the first half.

Georgia stopped the bleeding with a jumper near the baseline, which had a chance for a three-point play on a mystery whistle against Newlin.  The Bulldogs took their cue from the Cardinal, however, failing to convert at the charity stripe.  Georgia led, 68-65.  Stanford made a stop after 30 full seconds of defense on the other end.

The Card cut the margin down to one again, when Smith drew three defenders on the block, hesitated and then drove across the lane to hit her patented hook shot: 68-67.  Georgia ran the clock with less than two minutes in the game, smartly looking to shorten the number of remaining possessions.  They were dragging, while Stanford was surging.  Stanford was the deeper and fresher team, and it was obvious.  Harmon came up with a big defensive play, stealing the basketball from Cori Chambers at the top of the circle with five seconds on the shot clock.  A frustrated Bulldog reached and immediately fouled Harmon, sending the sophomore and Stanford to the line for a one-and-one bonus situation.

The Cardinal could have taken the lead, but as continued to be their bugaboo, they failed at the free throw line.  Harmon bricked the first attempt, which Georgia rebounded.  Stanford still trailed by a point, and Georgia had a chance to take the game under a minute and stretch their narrow margin.  Freshman Ashley Houts handled the ball and drove to the basket with 15 seconds left on the shot clock, then found herself under the towering arms of Newlin.  The Georgia freshman threw the ball errantly, which Hones collected and took the other direction.  Stanford's freshman was fouled going to the basket, setting up two free throws.

Hones missed both free throws, the eighth and ninth misses at the charity stripe for Stanford in the span of 10 attempts and 10-plus minutes.  Georgia hit 12 free throws in the second half alone, and 21 on the afternoon.  Stanford would finish 3-of-12 at the line.

Georgia took the 70-67 lead on - appropriately - free throws, leaving Stanford just 30.4 seconds.  Wiggins brought the ball up and looked for her shot on the perimeter, then driving, drew a double-team and dished to Harmon, who used a dribble and finished off the glass.  Stanford trailed again by a point, 70-69, now with 18.2 seconds in regulation.  The Cardinal immediately fouled after the inbounds pass, putting Houts on the line.  Unlike her Cardinal counterpart, the Georgia freshman hit both.  The Bulldogs were back to a three-point lead, with Stanford running out of time and in need of a three-point shot.

After a series of timeouts from the two teams, Stanford put Hones, Wiggins, Harmon, Smith and Newlin on the floor.  There was no mystery that Wiggins would take the shot.  The two-time All-American was defended by a freshman in Houts, and Wiggins forced a leaning line-drive shot that never touched the rim.  She appeared to have been fouled on the arm, but there would be no whistle to help the Cardinal on this day in Athens.  Georgia rebounded, shot two more (yes) free throws and celebrated a 74-69 victory.

  Stan. FTs Opp. FTs Stan. 3FGs
at Georgia 3-12 21-28 6-20
at Tennessee 3-9 18-19 5-13
vs. BYU 4-9 7-13 3-12
Total 10-30 46-60 14-45

In their three losses this year, a consistent pattern has emerged.  Stanford cannot hit their three-point shots, and Stanford is far less successful than their opponent in both making free throws and attacking offensively to garner free throw opportunities.  The latter failure goes hand-in-hand with the inability to make long-range shots because defenses are able to zone defensively or sag off shooters, both of which take away driving lanes.

The Cardinal have depth, athleticism and size unlike they have possessed in a number of years.  But basketball is a skilled game, and they are misfiring at the line and behind the arc to extents that have clearly cost them two of their three defeats in November.  The integration of the freshmen will take time, and so too probably will be the rhythm and timing of Wiggins after her four months off the basketball court during the off-season.  The Georgia game brought these issues to a head in a clearly winnable game, where Stanford's strengths were overwritten by these frailties.  Now that the Cardinal are back home after a difficult swing through the powers of the SEC, they have home games and practice time in their gym to remedy the issues at hand.

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