The big question for Stanford fans is the status of our all-American, all-purpose, and altogether inspiring Candice Wiggins. Based on pre-game reports, I'm assuming we will not see the junior guard on the court. Without Wiggins, the team will lack its best creator, three-point shooter, slasher, and basketball thief. But Stanford's three-headed post rotation is a potentially formidable force, particularly if a drawn-in defense can be exploited by outside shooting. In the Utah game, that shooting showed promise. The three-point potential comes from two post players (Brooke Smith and Kristen Newlin) and from perimeter players Cissy Pierce, Jillian Harmon, JJ Hones and Michelle Harrison, among others. In short, just about everyone has shown three-point potential. But who will have the hot hands tonight? My sense is that Stanford needs a couple of these players to step up.
For USC, there are a lot of story lines. Coach Mark Trakh has yet to defeat a Stanford team, but that can't last. He has come close a number of times. In November of 2003, his Pepperdine team, without big name players, pushed Stanford to the limit in a game at Malibu. In March of 2005, Trakh's USC team led Stanford at the half and pushed the favored Cardinal to the final minute in a semifinal game at the Pac-10 Tournament. Eshaya Murphy was pivotal in that game. And she'll be back tonight.
When you look at Murphy's numbers, they are on a par with Wiggins'. Wiggins leads in field goal percentage and in three-point percentage, and she has a few more assists. Each player leads her team in steals. But Murphy has a narrow edge in points per game and free throw percentage. Murphy has a substantial lead over Wiggins in rebounding. With these comparable statistics, Murphy appears at this point in time to be a legitimate candidate for conference player of the year.
Trakh, a soft-spoken but intense former high school English teacher, has gone a long way toward restoring the USC tradition of excellence that dates to the school's two NCAA championships in the early 1980s. Since then, USC has graduated top flight WNBA players Lisa Leslie and Tina Thompson, but it has not done well against Stanford. A Chris Gobrecht-coached team upset Stanford in 2004 in a game played in the old Los Angeles Sports Arena, but that game was a rare triumph for USC over the past decade.
My pregame prediction? I think defense will be a key. Stanford is averaging 15 turnovers a game to USC's 20. Stanford should also have a rebounding advantage. Despite these numbers, and despite injuries that prevent USC from fielding its strongest team, I have no doubt that the game will be hard fought. USC will be hungry for a victory against Stanford. One of the two teams will end its three-game winning streak.
The Galen Center - This will be the Trojans' first Pac-10 game in their new arena, the Galen Center, named by the major donor after a deceased former teammate. The arena is a fine venue for college basketball, with windows at one end of the Center which provide a nice vista of downtown Los Angeles sky scrapers. It's cold tonight, and cold weather usually means clear sight lines. The view is sparkling. The crowd is small, perhaps because of the holidays. There is a solid contingent of Stanford fans, about typical size for these L.A. games.
The final score (Stanford wins 62-46) does not reflect the intensity of this game.
It started out ragged, and continued that way. Both teams played intensely on the defensive side, and neither shot well in the early minutes. But Stanford began to pull away toward the middle of the first half. At the 12:15 mark, freshman guard JJ Hones hit the first of three three-point shots before halftime, and Stanford led 14-8. The Cardinal led throughout, but the margin was 15 points or less until relatively late in the second half.
Hones definitely stepped up for this game. Not only her three-point shooting, but also a series of steals and defensive stops were game-changing events in the first half. Stanford finished the first half with four three's, one by senior forward Kristen Newlin, to go with Hones'. That was to be the extent of the three-point shooting, but it was effective in opening up post scoring later. The defensive effort was first rate, holding USC to 27 points in the first half.
The story for USC was Eshaya Murphy, who had 18 points in the first half and 22 for the game. A number of players defended Murphy, including Hones and (especially in the second half) sophomore forward Jillian Harmon. In the second half, Murphy was less of a factor, but Stanford picked up an armful of fouls trying to defend her. Chloe Kerr was also effective at times, but USC really could not score in the second half – they had only 19 additional points to give them a game total of 46.
There were no apparent injuries to Stanford in this game – except perhaps to head coach Tara VanDerveer. Early in the second half, a USC player chasing an errant pass laid a KO on VanDerveer and the Gatorade cart behind her. The Cardinal coach was knocked over backwards, and I really thought she might have been injured. She was helped up, seemed okay and accepted the player's apology. The incident showed the intensity of this game. There were numerous rugby scrums on the gym floor, as players from both teams piled on in pursuit of the ball.
The game ended on an extra sour note for USC. Murphy was helped off the court with 51 seconds left in the game. No one sitting around me saw the cause of her fall, but it looked serious, perhaps a bad knee injury. That would be devastating to USC. She is a team leader and played this game with passion and skill. She is truly one of the Pac-10's finest.
So what stands out about this game? First the bad news. The free throw shooting was terrible. Freshman center/forward Jayne Appel was 2-of-2 from the line, and Harmon shot 50%, but no other player could hit anything from the stripe.
Now the good news. Hones performed exceptionally; she was not a freshman out there. Then there was the interior passing. Stanford finished this game with 18 assists, most of them passes to post players. Newlin finished with 14 points, stretching a tenuous 10-point lead in the final six minutes to 16 at the final buzzer by scoring Stanford's last eight points and squelching any USC hope of a comeback. There were some great passes that led to these points. Newlin's strong numbers were somewhat marred by her 1-of-7 shooting at the free throw line.
Fifth-year senior center/forward Brooke Smith also had 14 points, 12 boards, seven assists, two blocks and a steal. Harmon played her usual solid game on defense and ended with 13 points. Hones finished with 11 points (all in the first half).
And, Stanford won without Wiggins. She was there and very prominent in rooting for her teammates, but never set foot on the court.
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