Stanford Women's Basketball once again has been whacked upside the head with a devastating injury. In several instances the past decade, great regular seasons have closed with a crushing injury that left the Cardinal shorthanded and ultimately disappointed in the postseason. Two years ago it was senior forward T'Nae Thiel suffering a February stress fracture that kept her out a month and allowed her limited action attempting to return in the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight games of the NCAA Tournament, short of the Final Four. Junior forward Eziamaka Okafor tore her (second) Achilles tendon just weeks before Thiel's injury, and last winter Okafor suffered a fracture in her foot in the opening game of the NCAAs.
At the end of an undefeated Pac-10 championship in the 2001-02 season, senior wing Lindsey Yamasaki had her appendix removed. Stanford days later was shocked with an upset loss in the inaugural Pac-10 Tournament final, and a couple weeks later they were downed in the Sweet 16 of the Big Dance. Point guard Susan Borchardt (then Susan King) was lost to an ACL injury that year, as was also the case the year prior.
Nobody can forget the greatest and most swift injury devastation in perhaps the history of women's college basketball, when in March 1998, Stanford lost two superstars to ACL injuries in the span of a few days. Without the combined 34 points and 15-plus rebounds per game of junior Kristin Folkl and Vanessa Nygaard, Stanford claimed infamy by becoming the first ever women's or men's #1 seed to lose to a #16 seed (Harvard) to open the NCAA Tournament.
The injury big has bitten the head off numerous Pac-10 teams this year, Ozzy Osbourne circa 1980s style, striking at the conference's best young guards. 2005 McDonald's All-American Alexis Gray-Lawson has lost her sophomore season at Cal with an ACL tear, joined by 2006 Burger Game girls Jacki Gemelos at USC and Dymond Simon at Arizona State. It should come as no surprise the Cardinal would join the injury parade, with freshman point guard JJ Hones tearing her ACL this past Sunday. She is lost for the remainder of the season.
"I think it's part of women's basketball," says Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer matter-of-factly. "The list of injuries is really long, but it's part of the game. The games don't stop. The [NCAA] Tournament isn't going to say, 'We're going to wait for JJ to get healthy.' It's coming, and you have to get ready."
"We have superb players who are very resilient," VanDerveer charges. "I guess you have to put the puzzle together a different way."
Stanford has just three weeks left in the regular season with which to adjust in the post-Hones reality. Some might discount the injury impact upon Stanford. Hones after all is "just" a freshman. The aforementioned Stanford injuries struck upperclassmen, in contrast. But this frosh floor general had started 20 of Stanford's 23 games this year.
"She is our starting point guard and we really don't have anyone with experience behind her," VanDerveer says. "It's a very big loss for our team, and she has been playing very, very well. She does the things that we need her to do at that position, and now we need someone else to do it. It's a big loss."
Hones was scoring a modest 4.7 points per game and shooting 29.2% on three-pointers before her injury versus Cal on Sunday, but she was improving week by week in her command of the Cardinal offense. Many of her weaknesses seen in the preseason were becoming history. Her passing skill and decision-making were some of the best in the conference, and indeed her assist-to-turnover ratio (2.81) today stands #1 in the Pac-10.
"I like a lot of things that she was doing," VanDerveer describes. "I think first of all she is a very heady point guard. She makes good decisions with the ball. She could get the ball inside. She was very patient. She looked upcourt in our transition. I think she was a very underrated defensive player. She worked very hard defensively for us and didn't get in foul trouble. She made good stops. She has quick hands and forced some turnovers."
"I think she really in some ways was a glue. She kept people together. She did a really good job of running our team," the coach continues. "The other thing about JJ is that she worked very hard behind the scenes. She was always watching video. She was in the gym working on her shot. This is a huge loss for our team."
There were still a couple of liabilities in Hones' quickness and ability to handle certain defenses.
"She struggled in some situations," VanDerveer admits. "When we played teams with intense pressure - Tennessee comes to mind, and Arizona State - she really struggled with that kind of pressure. She doesn't really go by people the way I'd like her to go by people. She was trying to do that very thing when she got hurt."
Stanford's next two point guards, freshman Melanie Murphy and senior Markisha Coleman, have different bodies and types of athleticism from Hones. Hones was bigger and stronger, which she leveraged as an asset in high school but was still adjusting against some opponents at the college level. Murphy has the first step that can go by a defender who pressures the ball, and Coleman has a quickness on both ends of the floor that can frustrate opponents.
But that is one minor component in the grand scheme of what the Cardinal coaches ask their point guard to do. Stanford's absence of outside shooting this year has enticed several opponents to play zone defenses or sag off non-shooters. The loss versus Cal was a classic example, with the Bears daring the #8-ranked Cardinal to shoot from deep. Stanford too-willingly and too-awfully obliged, tossing up 35 three-pointers. The Cardinal hit 6-of-19 in the first half and none of their 16 attempts in the second half. Many misses were not close.
The sagging/zone defenses also serve for opponents to congest the low post position, where Stanford has a trio of trees. Fifth-year senior Brooke Smith, senior Kristen Newlin and freshman Jayne Appel are as imposing a group of triple towers as can be found in the nation, but they see double- and triple-teams when perimeter shooting is obviously anemic. Replacing Hones' sub-30 percent three-point shooting is not a tall task, but she was the best player on the roster at feeding the low post. Entry passes are a tremendous challenge against these defenses, and both Murphy and Coleman have to rise to that challenge.
There is of course another option, which was the one employed by Stanford after Hones' injury in the opening minute of Sunday's game. Neither Murphy (four minutes) nor Coleman (one minute) even matched their season average for playing time, despite Hones' 25.4 minutes per game at the point guard position suddenly taken away. Instead junior guard Candice Wiggins moved from her wing position to play the point for 35 of her 39 minutes before fouling out. That meant Hones' minutes were picked up at the wing positions, with junior Cissy Pierce and fifth-year senior Clare Bodensteiner playing a combined 45 minutes. The pair together shot 2-of-19 from the field, including 2-of-14 from three-point range. Bodensteiner was 1-of-9 from deep, hitting the backboard rather than rim on more than one occasion.
"The biggest question for us is: do we keep Candice comfortable at her 'two' spot and go with either Markisha or Mel at the 'one'? Or do we play Candice at the 'one' and go with Cissy and Clare?" VanDerveer asks. "I think it's going to be something that might be game to game. It might be situational. I think it's a great opportunity for those four people. One or two of them can step up."
The question is a hotly debated one, whether Wiggins can be Stanford's point guard or not. Point guard is the position she will play soon in the WNBA, and it is where she will play for USA Basketball in a myriad of international competitions for years to come. She has improved her decision-making this year, but three separate injuries already this year have marginalized her overall consistency and playmaking ability. This season has been the greatest struggle of Wiggins' college career, so asking her to play more point guard down the stretch is asking a lot.
But the answers VanDerveer seeks probably have less to do with Wiggins and more to do with the other four players. There is no doubt that Candice Wiggins will play monster minutes in the stretch run of this season, and she is what she is at this time in this season - not her best. The question is whether she and the team can best be supported with Murphy/Coleman in the backcourt, or if Pierce/Bodensteiner can score and defend at the wing. The answers will come not after a couple practices and probably not after tonight's game against Washington State, the bottom of the barrel in the Pac-10 with just one win in 13 conference games this year. The answers will also not be binary. Rather than a "yes" or "no" to these four options, there will be some linear combination employed that adjusts with their performances and the opponents they face.
Right now, none of these options are obviously satisfactory. All of them have an opportunity in Hones' absence, and the hope for Stanford has to be that one or more rise to the challenge. Somebody has to make a great leap forward in the coming weeks for Stanford to have any thought of achieving its postseason goals. We will watch and wait for the answer(s) to emerge.
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