This was not a pretty game. Stanford missed two-time All-American Candice Wiggins and point guard JJ Hones, struggling with USC's full court press in the first half and trailing 29-28 at the break. Copious turnovers coupled with an extreme difficulty getting into their offense hurt the Card. When Stanford did get the ball into their offensive pattern, often 15 to 18 seconds of the 30-second shot clock had been used.
Usually sophomore Jillian Harmon brought the ball upcourt solo to beat the press in the first half, but Stanford made adjustments to allow freshman Melanie Murphy more room to take her defender by herself to get the ball into the offensive flow.
The game was nip and tuck throughout, with Stanford getting late pressure baskets from senior Kristen Newlin and fifth-year senior Brooke Smith. The Cardinal then scored on a great pass from Smith to freshman Jayne Appel to put Stanford up one point with 35 seconds left in regulation. When USC missed a go-ahead three-pointer, it created a lose ball on which Appel dove. Depending on who you ask, the freshman either had or didn't have the ball, when ever alert Harmon called a timeout. To the relief of Cardinalmaniacs™ everywhere, it was granted. The ironic fact of this play is that Appel pushed/tossed the ball to Harmon, who had her back to the play, frantically signaling for a timeout in the official's face. When Stanford inbounded the ball with 13 seconds left in the game, they found Smith alone. She hauled in the pass and waited to be fouled.
Early in the half, Smith missed a free throw after having made 25 in a row. Now she was on the line, shooting two, to try to put Stanford up by three. Asked after the game what went thru her mind as she stepped to the line, Smith said, "I was glad I had that miss out of the way, so I knew I could make these two."
"Cool Hand" Smith then stepped to the line to hit both free throws, putting the Card up three. The Stanford defense held those final 10 seconds for the outright Pac-10 Championship.
It wasn't a pretty game. Okay, it was on the ugly side. Not having the all-world Wiggins is a blow, but the tougher-than-nails Cardinal showed their grittiness. Head coach Tara VanDerveer did call it a "gritty win" post-game. Stanford attempted only two three-point shots in the contest, with Smith hitting the only triple. Stanford relied on their three posts instead, in some instances playing them all at the same time, for their offense. This move came despite USC playing a zone defense most of the game. Stanford three-point shooting has been "Wiggins, Wiggins, Wiggins" this season, so it was "pound it inside" basketball today at Maples Pavilion. Responding were Stanford's triple towers: Appel with 14, Smith with 13 and Newlin with 10.
Stanford shot a poor 35.6% and were outrebounded by three, but defense often wins games. Defense did prevail today, as USC was only 28.6% from the floor, with only 3-of-17 from three-point range. A key for Stanford was Appel coming alive in the second half to score 12 of her team-high 14 points - many on great, crisp passes from classmate Murphy. The freshman point guard finished with a season-high 10 assists, showing her grittiness in coming back from a so-so first half to a solid, and at times brilliant, second half.
Today was Senior Day for four wonderful Stanford players, Clare Bodensteiner, Markisha Coleman, Kristen Newlin and Brooke Smith. The pre-game ceremony included tributes to the quartet, who were joined by their families. In this group is a future doctor, a future lawyer and you better believe four future successes in life. An emotional day, and they ended as Champions.
Of course, while we bade farewell to our seniors, we also realize that they could play nine more games. The Pac-10 Tournament starts Friday in San Jose with the lead-in games, and Stanford plays Saturday against Friday's Arizona-Oregon State winner. Then it's almost certainly back to Maples for the first round of the NCAA Tournament, March 17 and 19. So it's, "Farewell, we'll miss you, but hope to see you play three in San Jose, two more in Maples, then maybe on to Fresno for the Sweet Sixteen."
Hopefully Wiggins gets healthy - and stays healthy - and our seniors and our team visit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland for a couple of ball games. If the Cardinal do, it's because of the huge success in games like today's, where they played gritty and showed their tougher-than-nails attitude in yet another victory.
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