On Sunday afternoon, the Stanford Women's Basketball team won a narrow and hard fought game, and with it sole possession of a Pac-10 Championship. They prevailed over a tenacious USC team, 59-56, twice overcoming a one-point deficit in the last few minutes.
The sandwich that makes up this year's Stanford team has been healthily layered with freshman, interior class members, and seniors. But Sunday's game was, well... a bit light on the interior filling. Playing without junior All-American Candice Wiggins, the Cardinal relied heavily on the play of two seniors and two freshmen.
The game was played with tournament intensity. USC played oppressive defense, bunched to the middle to defend Stanford's post players, and rotated players continuously. Each of the 10 USC players in the game saw at least 11 minutes. USC shot horribly (27%) but rebounded and defended tenaciously. They came very close to winning this game and, with this level of performance, could be a threat to any opponent in the Pac-10 Tournament.
Collectively, the Stanford freshmen and seniors played two-thirds of the minutes, contributed 100% of the assists, 100% of the blocks, 85% of the points, and 81% of the rebounds - not to mention 83% of the steals. Who were the heroines of this heavily breaded sandwich?
Let's start with freshman point guard Melanie Murphy. She played all 40 minutes of this game - that after averaging only five or six minutes a game for most of the season. Since fellow freshman point guard JJ Hones went down with an season-ending ACL injury, Murphy has stepped up big time. Murphy didn't shoot very well (2-of-8 from the field), but she did everything else one could expect from a point guard. In the second half, she brought the ball up court against USC's full court trapping defense with consistent success. If there is another point guard in Stanford's illustrious past that could have done this better, I'll eat my hat (I need the fiber anyway).
Murphy finished the game with 10 assists, many of them over-the-top passes to fellow freshman Jayne Appel. Murphy was a steadying influence in a game that tended towards the frenetic. My favorite Murphy play of the game: Murphy's falling-out-of-bounds fling off the USC defender to save a Stanford possession. By the way, Murphy's low shooting percentage can be attributed in part to her commendable efforts to create as the shot clock was winding down.
Then there is freshman center Jayne Appel. Playing just 20 minutes because of foul trouble, Appel was nonetheless the dominant post presence that Stanford fans have come to expect. She scored a game-high 14 points, most of them in the second half when Stanford fought back from a deficit, gained the lead and held on for the victory. She also pulled down nine boards while playing just half the game. Appel's foul troubles Sunday may be a recurrence of season-long difficulties, but I think not. The game in the paint was intense and physical, and posts on both teams had difficulties with fouls. For a good part of the second half, Appel herself became sandwich filling between two USC defenders that stayed glued to her. My favorite Appel play: her last shot on a feed from Brooke Smith that put Stanford back in the lead for good.
Now on to the seniors. Kristen Newlin had a game to remember, playing more than any other post (33 minutes). She scored 10 points, had nine rebounds and added two assists and two blocks. She was tenacious against a very physical opponent. She made a critical 10-foot open shot to put Stanford back in the lead in the last two minutes. My favorite Newlin play: her point guard performance when, for a single possession while Murphy was being oppressively guarded, Newlin brought the ball up court. Newlin is money.
Well, that leaves fifth-year senior Brooke Smith, post player extraordinaire and the heroine of many Stanford games. She did it again. The salient fact was that Smith, too, was in foul trouble and played an unusually low 29 minutes. She left the game two minutes into the second half with four fouls. But Smith returned in the critical last 10 minutes of regulation, scoring most of her 13 points during this time. There was a put back, an impressive turnaround from the key that seemed half-hook, half-put (as in shot put), and two critical foul shots that gave Stanford its three-point margin in the last 12 seconds of the game. My favorite Smith play of the game: with less than a minute on the clock and Stanford behind by a point, Smith took a pass at the top of the key with her back to the basket, wheeled, dribble-faked to distract one of Appel's defenders, then threaded a pass that led to Appel's smooth finish.
Yup, it was a sandwich heavy on the crust, but what a nice freshman-senior crust it was. Now if Stanford can restore some Candice-Wiggins filling to this sandwich...
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