10 Takeaways: WBB vs. ASU

The Cardinal stand atop the Pac-10 standings after four games, thanks to a 77-71 victory over #10-ranked Arizona State on Saturday night. The battle was as advertised, a 15-round heavyweight fight at Maples Pavilion that went down to the final seconds. We present a series of 10 insightful observations, opinions and statistical notes from the evening affair that closed 2006 with a bang.

*  The first surprise in this game was the quick substitution at the 17:19 mark of freshman point guard Melanie Murphy for classmate JJ Hones.  Murphy has been employed very sparingly by Stanford this season: one minute vs. Missouri, one minute at Georgia, five minutes at USC, four minutes at UCLA and not at all against BYU.  Her substitutions have been infrequent and typically late in the half, particularly the second halves of ballgames with the outcome already decided.  Murphy's most significant playing opportunity this season interestingly came at Tennessee, where the freshman ballhandler logged 19 minutes in a hostile environment against the currently #4-ranked Lady Vols.  Saturday against Arizona State, Stanford substituted Murphy into the game the fastest we have seen this season.  Hones was credited with a turnover on Stanford's first possession of the game, but it came on a drive to the basket, passing against a double-team that collapsed on her.  The next time Stanford touched the ball, Hones again drove the lane and this time put up a brick off the glass and back iron.  Next possession, Hones had a ball slapped away by a tightly defending Reagan Pariseau.  Were those results enough cause for Tara VanDerveer to make the early move?  Maybe.  I would also believe that there was some forethought that the pace and style of this game could call for Murphy's quickness and ability to handle the ball against pressure - similar in many ways to the game conditions in Knoxville a month earlier.  Also, Arizona State sent their quick and athletic freshman point guard, Dymond Simon, to the scorer's table prior to Murphy being called from the bench.  The next time Simon substituted into the game near the 10-minute mark of the half, Hones was again pulled by VanDerveer.  This may have been a matter of how Stanford wanted to match up against Simon, 5'5" and lightning quick.

*  After two made free throws by Candice Wiggins near the 13-minute mark of the first half, Stanford went to a 2-3 zone defense for the first time in the game.  I really liked that move.  Stanford has the athleticism, conditioning and roster depth to play with the Sun Devils' pace.  But it is never wise to allow one's opponent to play too much in their comfort zone with their preferred style of basketball.  The zone dramatically slowed down Arizona State's offense and netted a pair of misses.  The Cardinal next employed the zone two minutes later, following a lay-up by sophomore forward Jillian Harmon (few coaches try to play zone defense after a missed field goal, missed free throw or turnover - your players cannot get safely get into position).  ASU took more than 20 seconds to find a shot, which also missed.  I would have liked to see more zone defense from Stanford in this game, though it hard to argue with a defensive gameplan that held highest scoring team in the Pac-10 to just 37.3% shooting from the field and 6.7% three-pointers.

*  It doesn't take a supercomputer to pinpoint what turned around the game for Stanford in the second half.  They trailed by seven points in the first half, scoring just 28 points on 33% shooting.  The Cardinal outscored the Sun Devils by 13 in the second stanza with 56% work from the field.  Not coincidentally, junior guard Candice Wiggins scored two points in the first half and an eye-popping 19 in the second half.  Arizona state hounded Wiggins mercilessly in the first half, holding her without a field goal.  Most of that was achieved by denying her the ball.  She also sat on the bench the final 6:25 of the half after picking up her second foul.  Wiggins only attempted four shots in the first half, with her first attempt coming in the fifth minute.  She hit three jumpers in the first two-plus minutes of the second half and her fourth straight bucket before the first media timeout.  Wiggins drained her first four shots in the first four minutes, with three of them three-pointers, to cap a 17-3 run for Stanford to start the half.  Between her early-season injuries and the four months off the court during the spring and summer, Wiggins is not her normal All-American self, but she still can singularly change the landscape of a basketball game better than any player this side of the Mississippi.

*  Stanford bounced back in the second half with 5-of-6 three-point shooting after failing in all four of their attempts from long range in the opening stanza.  To be more specific, Wiggins bounced back.  She launched all six of those Stanford second-half shots behind the arc.  No other Cardinal attempted so much as a single three-pointer.  Talk about putting all of your eggs in one basket...  Stanford and Wiggins hit five triples after halftime while ASU was 0-of-9.  Despite all that, this was a one-point game with 20 seconds remaining in regulation.

*  When looking ahead to the rematch in Tempe, pay attention to Arizona State's three-point shooting.  They had an awful time on Saturday from behind the arc at Maples Pavilion.  1-of-15 from deep.  That's brutal.  And the Sun Devils were the #1 three-point shooting team in the Pac-10 (38.5%) coming into the contest.  Their one make came from senior Jill Noe, who was 1-of-6 on the evening after shooting 54.8% from behind the arc in her previous 12 games.  The iron may have been unkind, and the Sun Devils will almost assuredly shoot better the next time these teams meet.  But give the Cardinal credit for some of their best perimeter defense of the season.  I have written previously about Stanford's difficulty both shooting and defending from three-point range in their three early losses (combined 21-of-46 or 45.7% allowed in the losses to BYU, Tennessee and Georgia).  Noe's single made three-pointer on Saturday incidentally came in transition on an ASU fast break.  Who defended Noe with the shot (it was officially recorded as a three-pointer, but both feet were on the line) to ostensibly tie at 14 seconds left in the game?  Brooke Smith.

*  Something we have discussed, which opponents have employed as a primary defensive strategy against Stanford this year, has been double- and triple-teaming Brooke Smith when she touches the ball in the low post.  Smith as a result has had a season with very up-and-down performances, including zero points against Utah and four points against Tennessee.  She has not enjoyed a 20-point game since the season opener versus Loyola Marymount.  Arizona State predictably played a very physical game against Smith, but she responded with a game just shy of a triple-double: 19 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists.  She also went to the free throw line a season-high eight times, which could be seen as a positive sign for her offensive aggression; however, six of those appearances at the charity stripe came in the final 20 seconds as ASU fouled in deliberate desperation.  She can score and she can rebound, but the best sign of all is seeing Smith's seven assists against three turnovers.  Smith is making better decisions when she feels defensive pressure, dishing for 19 assists against nine turnovers in her four Pac-10 games the past couple weeks.

*  Speaking of turnovers, that was an area of concern coming into this game.  Stanford came into the game averaging 15 turnovers per game, and they have a pair of freshman point guards who were seeing their first look at the highest pressure defense in the league.  Arizona State was forcing an average of more than 24 turnovers per game.  Stanford handled the Sun Devils defense quite well, coughing up the ball just 12 times.  That may be the statistic of the game for Stanford, and an indicator of the team's composure and decision-making in a pressured environment (albeit in the comfy confines of their home court).  Also, the Cardinal made eight of their turnovers in the first half.  They only gave up the ball four times in the final 20 minutes.

*  Arizona State still managed to come out of the game +4 on turnovers, losing the ball just eight times.  They may have hoped for a greater margin, but it was an edge in their favor nonetheless.  The Sun Devils rank atop the conference in turnover margin with a +6.29 average.  Frequently forced turnovers coupled with ASU's ability to send all five players racing down the floor in transition keys many easy baskets for the Sun Devils, but they surprisingly found just six points on the fast break in 40 minutes against the Cardinal.  It was one of the more subtle points of this game, but I thought that several times an individual Stanford player getting back in transition defense did a good job of denying a score.  At least a couple times, it was the alien arms of freshman center Jayne Appel reaching out after she ran the floor.  Appel played just 21 minutes coming off the bench but provided big lifts on defense and offense in both halves, including 16 points and seven rebounds.

*  You may not care for Arizona State's style of basketball and may not care for the hot air blown in the newspapers by Charli Turner Thorne and her players ahead of these Stanford games.  But this was a whale of a basketball battle.  Both teams had runs, with seven second-half ties and a slew of lead changes.  Neither team led by more than four points for the final 15-plus minutes of the game, which is extraordinary.  Arizona State cannot back up their talk of toppling Stanford for the Pac-10 conference crown, but they are making a hard charge and giving the Cardinal a serious fight.  When you are perennially at the top of the heap and your nearest geographic conference competitor has not beaten you the last 13 times you met, it is hard to consider anybody a "rival."  But this game against the Sun Devils, coupled with ASU's recent level of success and the level of competition in last year's meetings, tells me that this is a true rivalry being built - the first for Stanford since its great battles with Oregon in the 1990s.  These two teams don't care much for each other when they share the court, and the games are certain to put the conference lead and national rankings on the line.  Stanford wants to win in March and April, and a high-level rivalry that produces these types of games can help them achieve that goal.

*  Something has to be done about the officiating in the Pac-10.  If Arizona State and Charli Turner Thorne want to play a high-intensity and exceedingly physical brand of basketball, so be it.  It is not for us to decide whether that is "good" or "bad" basketball.  What matters is how the officials handle it.  They can choose to call the game closely and not allow 40 minutes of "maul ball," or they can let the physical play go - which by the way is not necessarily a bad thing in preparing Pac-10 teams for the NCAA Tournament.  What the officials cannot do is call an inconsistent game, which was the case Saturday.  There were touch fouls called at times, while slaps and body slams were left unchecked.  Such is the wizardry of Melissa Barlow, whose apparent need for grabbing the spotlight and controlling the flow of the game may only be matched by the infamous Dave Libbey on the men's side (or Richie Ballesteros before him).  You know that the officiating is under Tara VanDerveer's skin when she drew her first technical foul on the bench in six years.  She watched Emily Westerberg throw her fifth-year senior center superstar Brooke Smith late in the first half to the ground without a flagrant foul called, after Smith on the other end had Pariseau hack her across the arm on a drive to the basket without a whistle.  VanDerveer's short fuse was justifiably lit after a horrendously officiated game a week earlier in Los Angeles that saw all three of her post players hit with two or three fouls by the eight-minute media timeout of the first half at UCLA.

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