After a maelstrom of bad news that has unendingly swept through Stanford Women's Basketball the last month-plus, including an ACL tear for the starting point guard and numerous injuries to perhaps the program's best ever player, there was finally a feel-good story last weekend for the Cardinal. It started in Corvallis on an inauspicious evening, with Stanford trailing to one of the conference's weakest teams, junior Candice Wiggins in street clothes and sophomore Jillian Harmon going down with an injury.
If the last several weeks played to form, freshman center Jayne Appel would soon enough join those teammates on the bench. Appel had regularly and painfully been picking up fouls early and often in games. In five of her six previous games (with a home romp over Washington State the lone exception), the 6'4" freshman had picked up two personal fouls every time on the floor in the first half and ultimately scored in single figures in four of those games. Two first-half fouls is the magic threshold that will induce almost every coach in America to sit a player through halftime, given the greater number and importance of possessions in the second half of a game. Appel was effectively taking herself out of contests. It was expected that she would pick up four or five fouls, with choice minutes and opportunities to contribute sandwiched between.
For a player coming off the bench to routinely return with foul trouble is more notable still. Coming into last week's games in the Beaver State, Appel was averaging just 17.9 minutes per game in Pac-10 play.
That cold evening in Corvallis last Thursday marked an entirely different story for the highly regarded freshman. Appel stayed out of foul trouble through the breadth of the game, playing 33 critical minutes. With the injuries and struggles Stanford faced that night, she was needed every opportunity on the floor.
"I think I had a little more pressure this past weekend, having Candice be out and having Jill be out for part of the Oregon State game, just to perform more and have more be expected of me," Appel explains. "I like playing under pressure. I think that helped me. I like being in situations where I'm expected to do well, rather than just: 'Go in and see how you do.'"
From that Corvallis crucible, Appel emerged spectacularly. She dominated the Beavers to the tune of 28 points, 17 rebounds and two blocked shots in the Cardinal victory. The scoring and rebounding were both career highs for the freshman, with the latter a team high this season and the former tied for second best.
Two days later, Appel again was sensational and foul-free. She played 27 minutes at Oregon and did not pick up her second whistle until 7:08 remained in the second half. She notched her second straight double-double in victory, this time totaling 18 points and 11 boards to go with seven assists, three steals and a blocked shot. What a difference a week makes.
Appel credits her experience the previous game at Maples Pavilion against Washington. True to form, the frosh picked up a pair of quick whistles. She returned to the game at the 14:23 mark of the second half, but less than two minutes later she had picked up a pair of fouls in the span of 25 seconds. Disastrous. The good news was that Stanford was in full control of the Huskies, up 22 points. Tara VanDerveer left her freshman in the game rather than pulling her to the bench after the fourth foul. Appel played the next 10 minutes without a whistle. When she finally sat on the bench for the final couple minutes of regulation, it was a substitution by choice rather than by disqualification. During the time that she played with four fouls, Appel scored eight points, grabbed seven rebounds, blocked three shots and dished a pair of assists.
That was a breakthrough experience, according to Appel:
"Every week, I had Coach coming up to me and saying, 'You need to stay in the game. You can't foul.' I think I learned a lot in the Washington game when Coach left me in with four fouls. She was like, 'If you want to play in the game, then you'll stay in the game.' I think that was a big learning experience. 'Wow, I need to pick this up now or I'm not going to be playing. I can't be a player just giving up points and fouling.'"
"I think she really figured that out this weekend. We'll see if that carries over," VanDerveer says of Appel's more foul-free play in Oregon. "Jayne knows you only get five fouls, and she doesn't get a whole lot of love from some of the officials. Some of them don't think that women can't block shots."
It is pretty evident that Appel is a verifiable eraser. She has blocked 47 shots to date this season, despite the aforementioned limited minutes and not having started a single game. She leads not only Stanford with her swats, but also the Pac-10. She has matched last year's team-best mark made by Brooke Smith and is just 11 blocks away from the tying the school single-season record of 58 by Cori Enghusen (2001-02).
That does not mean that Appel's technique is always sounds.
"I think she is really understanding that you have to play better defense, moving your feet and creating space so that she is not getting people with her body," VanDerveer offers.
That will improve with time, but the fouls that have more unnecessarily added to Appel's woes have been borne of frustration. After a missed shot at the basket, the freshman has often swiped at a defender after a defensive rebound, as if to punish somebody else for her missed score.
"That's definitely 100 percent mental," she admits. "My coaches get on me every game."
"If she makes those shots, then she's not going to be fouling," VanDerveer adds hopefully.
This is where the chicken-and-egg part of the story surfaces. When Appel is missing baskets, she can foul out of frustration and send herself to the bench. When she plays foul-free and can stay on the floor, she can play with a rhythm that allows her to exert her abilities and dominate the paint like no other player on the West Coast.
"I think it's hard to get into any kind of zone when I was getting into so much foul trouble," Appel explains. "I would foul, come out, try to go back in, foul and come out again. It's something a lot easier when you're playing a lot more. I'm able to get things going and just let the flow of the game happen."
Toward that end, Appel has taken up the study of statistics - Stanford Basketball style. A recognition of the match surrounding her foul troubles has led her to a conclusion about how she has to play in the first half of a game. When Appel would earlier this season see an official point that menacing finger her way for the first time in a game, she would feel a sense of dread and despair. Now she reacts with a sense of resolve.
"For the Washington game it was: 'Wow. Here we go. Here come the fouls again,'" she says. "Now it's more: 'Once I get one, I can't foul again this half.' That's my goal, to get no more than one in the first half. It's not necessarily that it will never happen, but it's rare to get four fouls called in one half against the same player. It's easy to get three, so picking up the second one in the first half is something I can't do."
Showing that she can stay on the floor against the Oregon schools is one thing. Oregon State in particular is a team bereft of size on their roster. Tonight's challenge from the visiting UCLA Bruins will be another matter. Appel will find herself matched up against players like the athletic 6'4" sophomore Chinyere Ibekwe, the skilled 6'4" junior Lindsey Pluimer and supersized 6'6" freshman Moniquee Alexander. USC on Sunday will offer a big test with super 6'3" senior Chloe Kerr and active 6'3" sophomore Nadia Parker.
"She's eliminated that. She's put it behind her," says a confident VanDerveer of Appel's propensity for fouls. "And you know what? She won Pac-10 Player of the Week with her 'B' game. That wasn't even her 'A' game. That's coming soon - you watch."
Not only is Appel learning lessons and improving, but there has been a recent change in emphasis for the Cardinal to pound the ball into the paint to his triple tower targets: the 6'4" Appel, 6'3" fifth-year senior Brooke Smith and 6'5" senior Kristen Newlin. In their lone loss of the 2007 calendar year, Stanford launched 35 three-pointers against a California defense that glibly sagged off the Cardinal's perimeter players. Stanford forgot or failed their strength, which is an inside-out game that lets their preeminent post powers touch the ball and make plays scoring or passing. No longer will that be allowed to happen.
"I think that as a team we have emphasized, especially since our Cal game, getting the ball inside to all of our post players," VanDerveer says. "Jayne is a huge target, and I think that's something that Melanie Murphy does well. She and Brooke really get the ball to Jayne exceptionally well. And Jayne has been delivering. I think she'll finish even stronger. She's playing with more and more confidence. Being named player of the week has been a great thing for her. I think that she's just scratching the surface of how good she is going to be. And our team has a lot of confidence in her."
After scoring 46 points and grabbing 28 rebounds in her pair of games last week, Appel is inspiring confidence a-plenty. Her ability to continue that play - and to keep herself on the floor - will elevate Stanford tremendously in this stretch run and into a greatly anticipated postseason. It all starts tonight.
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