A Cardinal Calamity

Shortly before the Super Bowl kicked off Sunday, a 72-57 upset of #8-ranked Stanford at Maples Pavilion sent shockwaves through the Pac-10 and women's college basketball. #21 Cal dared the Cardinal to shoot from outside, with alarming success, while muscling and outhustling Stanford on the boards. Stanford also lost starting point guard JJ Hones to injury on a calamitous afternoon on The Farm.

Strategies, Counter-Strategies, and Future Options:
Reflections on an Ugly Loss

Speaking of his own team, Stanford men's basketball coach Trent Johnson has observed that when the shots aren't falling, things can get ugly.  Things got ugly indeed for the Stanford's highly ranked women's basketball team, as they fell 72-57 to California on Sunday.  Stanford's 17-game winning streak was snapped; its 50-game home conference winning streak was ended.  The team shot an abysmal 27% from the field and only 17% on three-point attempts.  There were a lot of those.  The Cardinal made only 6-of-35 long-range shots, 0-of-16 in the second half.

The strategies pursued by California coach Joanne Boyle and Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer were not difficult to discern.  From the outset, Cal doubled down low to stop Stanford's high-scoring posts.  They sagged on all of Stanford's perimeter players, with one exception.  The exception was, of course, junior guard Candice Wiggins.  The rest of Stanford's outside players (including posts when they came to the perimeter) were left relatively unchallenged.  Leaving perimeter players open is a risky strategy against Tara VanDerveer-coached teams that have blown out many an opponent with three-point shooting.  But Stanford players other than Wiggins have not tickled the twine too frequently this season from downtown.  Boyle's strategy was a winner on Sunday.  That strategy, combined with a sterling performance by Cal post Devanei Hampton, produced a memorable upset for Cal and an unnerving loss for Stanford.

The old rule of taking what the defense gives you is a sound one in basketball.  In this game, Stanford players could not seize the opportunity.  When freshman point guard JJ Hones went down in the first minute with a possible season-ending knee injury, she was replaced with junior shooting guard Cissy Pierce, who on the season is shooting .357 from three-point land.  But Pierce could not find her rhythm in this game, going only 1-of-5 from behind the arc.  Recognizing Cal's sagging defense, Stanford made its next strategic move just more than three minutes into the game.  Sophomore forward Jillian Harmon (shooting .211 on threes this season) was replaced with fifth-year senior shooting guard Clare Bodensteiner, a player with sparse minutes this season but who had shot from the perimeter relatively well.  Until Sunday, that is.  On this day, Bodensteiner went 1-of-9 on largely uncontested three-pointers (bringing her season three-point average down to .172).

Stanford posts fared no better.  Senior forward Kristen Newlin, who had the third highest season average from three-point land (.296), went 0-of-3, and fifth-year senior center Brooke Smith went 0-of-4.  Harmon, who in the seven-player rotation ranks near the bottom in three-point percentage (.211), had the day's highest percentage, making 1-of-2 attempts.

Stanford tried other strategies to offset Cal's sagging defense.  Perimeter players were posted up; on successive second-half plays, Stanford posted first freshman forward Michelle Harrison (a three-second lane violation nullified the score) and Wiggins (she was fouled and made free throws).  Stanford tried to screen its post players for more open looks.  And Smith got creative with her post moves with some success (Smith had 16 points for the game).  But it wasn't enough.  A 27% field goal percentage does not win many games.

Stanford was also out-rebounded by a 46 to 39 margin.  Cal's powerful posts can be expected to board well, but the rebounding margin was largely provided by Cal's perimeter players, who blocked out well and recovered a high percentage of Stanford's 29 errant three-point attempts.

So what next?  Stanford will dearly miss JJ Hones.  She missed her only three-point attempt in the first minute, but for the season Hones was hitting .285 on threes.  Hones is also a gamer.  She has shown an ability to make the shots when it matters (for example, when an injured Wiggins could not play).  Had she not been injured, she could well have made a difference.  Even modest success at the three-point game (say an additional two or three scores) could have turned the momentum and outcome of this game.

Don't expect Stanford's fundamental offensive strategy to change.  Stanford remains in the driver's seat to win the conference, but other players must step up if Stanford is to achieve its season-long goals.  Stanford has a long tradition of perimeter threats.  Vanessa Nygaard and Kate Starbird were among the Stanford alumnae watching this game.  And more recent grads Kelley Suminski and Susan Borchardt could well have ravaged Cal's sagging defense.  The coaches will continue to look for three-point shooting.  Improving on 6-of-35 should not be difficult.  But a significant and sustained improvement is necessary if Stanford is to get deep into the NCAA Tournament.

Expect Pierce to receive more playing time at the wing, with Wiggins taking more time at the point.  The role of Stanford freshman point guard Melanie Murphy remains a question.  Murphy is a gifted athlete who is skilled at ballhandling and driving to the basket.  There is surely an enhanced role for her now that Hones is likely lost for the season.  Murphy has taken no three-point shots this year, and her contributions as a perimeter jump shooter are not likely to change dramatically in the next month.  But Murphy can learn to contribute in other ways by honing her defensive skills and taking care of the ball.  Offensively, Murphy can contribute by using her drives to draw in defenders and passing back out to open teammates.  And if she can hit the pull-up jumper, she's assured of a lot more playing time.  Stanford needs Murphy, and this is a great opportunity for her.

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