It was hard to hold back our exuberance for Stanford's stellar scoring display in their first round game of this NCAA Tournament. The Cardinal's 96 points stood as the highest by any team in the Big Dance over the weekend. It is also fair to point out that their opponent, Idaho State, came into the NCAAs ranked 318th out of 324 Division I teams in scoring defense. The Bengals' strength was outdistancing their foes with their #3 scoring margin in the nation. Consequently, the Cardinal maybe deserve greater credit for holding Idaho State to 28.6% shooting and 24 points in the first half and 33.9% shooting and 58 points in the game.
But we already knew that Stanford is a pretty darned good defensive team, ranked #5 in the nation in field goal percentage defense, #28 in scoring defense and #17 in rebounding margin. The Cardinal collected an awe-inspiring 53-20 rebounding margin against Idaho State, a differential that ranks tied for seventh all-time in a single NCAA Tournament game.
More of our questions this year in observing Stanford Women's Basketball have come on the offensive end. With the famed "triple towers" of Brooke Smith, Kristen Newlin and Jayne Appel prowling the paint, opposing defenses have clogged the interior with sagging and/or zone defenses. Opponents have had the stomach for such strategies because of the impotent or inconsistent perimeter shooting Stanford has displayed. The Cardinal stand today at 29-4, so it is hard to characterize this as too overblown of a weakness, but it did come home to roost in two critical defeats. Early in the season at home against BYU, the hard-nosed Cougars collapsed with double-teams on Smith at every opportunity she touched the ball. She was held to 13 points on 5-of-10 shooting in the loss, while her three-point shooting teammates combined for 1-of-9 from behind the arc.
Stanford has lost only one game in nearly four months since their 2-3 start, but the defeat came (again) at home against California, daring the Cardinal's perimeter shooters with five- and six-foot cushions to shoot from outside. Stanford obliged, and the abused the iron with 6-of-35 three-point shooting.
There is of course one excellent three-point shooter on the roster, an All-American do-everything player by the name of Candice Wiggins. Perhaps you have heard of her. She came into these NCAAs hitting at a 44.6% clip from deep (#5 in the nation), which continued almost precisely on the mark with her 4-of-9 three-point shooting against Idaho State. But her teammates offer a night-and-day contrast in that department. Starting small forward Jillian Harmon shoots just 24.0% and has attempted only 25 three-pointers in 33 games this year. Starting point guard and freshman Melanie Murphy had no three-point attempts this season until firing her very first (a miss) on Saturday. Reserve forward Michelle Harrison may be proficient from deep down the line in her Cardinal career, but she offers evidence of just 24.4% shooting from that range in this freshman season. Smith and Newlin theoretically have the range when they play in the high post, but they have combined for just 18 makes on 26.1% three-point shooting.
Then there is junior guard Cissy Pierce, sometimes a starter in the backcourt alongside Wiggins (as we saw Saturday) and sometimes a reserve. Head coach Tara VanDerveer told us after the Idaho State game that she started Pierce against the Bengals strictly for defensive purposes. ISU's junior guard Andrea Lightfoot was a lethal scorer and three-point shooter and one of the Cardinal's keys in the defensive gameplan. Pierce started and played 31 minutes in the game. Despite the outcome being a 96-58 blowout that allowed Pierce to sit the final minutes, she logged a season-high in minutes. Why? Because she locked down on Lightfoot superbly. The Bengals guard finished with a stunning four points on 1-of-9 shooting from the field, including 0-of-2 from three-point range.
But that is not what jumped out at you Saturday as you watched Pierce play. The superlative sight you registered was her 4-of-4 shooting to start the game, including two three-pointers in the first two minutes and 10 points in the first five minutes. All of those shots were jumpers, with the third just a toenail away from becoming her third triple and the fourth falling from 14 feet on the baseline.
If you have not watched this team often this year, let it be said that Cissy Pierce is not a demonstrated perimeter shooter. Her last made three-pointer before Saturday came ironically enough on February 4 in that Cal game, though she hoisted five shots to make that one. Pierce came into the Idaho State game with only 11 makes and 33 attempts behind the three-point arc in 32 games. She is instead an otherworldly slashing athlete, who still has not fully tapped the offensive scoring machine that her explosiveness should allow. Pierce has a first step that can blow by almost any defender and the leaping ability to pull up and score at the glass or from mid-range high over the reach of the defense.
"She is so fast, so quick and so athletic," VanDerveer offers on Pierce. "Play that way. If you're a Ferrari, play like a Ferrari. Don't play like a Volkswagen. She has this great athleticism, and she's jogging along. Hell, I could guard you. Sprint. Go hard. Go fast. Push it."
"It was really, really fun to see her come out and start the game that way," the coach comments on Pierce's perimeter shooting against Idaho State. "She looked very relaxed and loose. She was taking her shot, and then the basket got big for her. I think it did relax a lot of other people."
Stanford finished their NCAA first round game hitting nine three-pointers against Idaho State's eight. That brought a smile to VanDerveer's face. Stanford ranked 190th in three-point baskets, while Idaho State was #3 in the nation.
"No one coming into this game would believe that we could do that," the coach crows. "Obviously Brooke played well, but everyone thinks we're bricklayers out there. You know, we have people who can knock down shots. They just need to take them in the flow, and it was great to see people do that."
VanDerveer points out that her team has shot more than 37,000 three-pointers in practices this year - at least, the ones that have been charted. She feels it is high time that it translates onto the court.
"These kids are shooting 60%. Let's transfer it to the game. It was great to see Cissy do that," she says. "They make them all the time in practice. Why are you doing this to me, torturing me?"
"Her jumpshot is like a layup. Cissy has the most beautiful jumpshot, and the hangtime on it," VanDerveer continues. "She pulls up and has an incredible vertical - just a beautiful jumpshot."
But in the game of women's basketball, there is a difference for almost all players between their jumpshot and their three-point shot, the latter of which is more of a set shot. VanDerveer points to Wiggins as a prime example who has developed and mastered both. Pierce is now working on the art of extending her jumper to three-point range rather than necessarily taking the three-point set shot.
"Cissy doesn't shoot a set shot. So she really did not have a three," VanDerveer explains. "This year she has gotten comfortable taking her jumpshot from three. I always say that her three-point shot could become a much bigger weapon for her, but she she was not comfortable last year taking that. Her maturity has been really fun and exciting to watch. She for whatever has relaxed."
Pierce points to the scouting report given to her and her teammates by assistant coach Charmin Smith for the Idaho State game. The junior jumping bean says she was able to anticipate the shots available to her beforehand, which made it easy for her take those shots early in the flow of the game.
"It kind of reminded me of playing a Pac-10 team, even though we have never seen Idaho State play or played against them. Charmin did a really good job scouting, and everything she said they would do, they did," Pierce explains. "I just visualized the soft spots in the zone. Or if they're sagging when we kick it in, then spot up. Brooke, Jayne and New are great about looking out for you if they're doubled or tripled."
But both Pierce and VanDerveer say that there is a greater improvement of Pierce's comfort on the floor offensively this year. She has been a confident and aggressive defensive player for a greater breadth of her collegiate playing days, but the offense is still coming around. Shooting from 20 feet has been the most difficult part.
"In high school, I didn't really play like that. I wasn't a stand-around shooter," says Pierce. "I think that's something that has definitely evolved in my game, taking what the defense gives me. I would always just try to drive or pull up, but getting more relaxed with the three really has evolved in my game this year."
Both the coach and player say that some of the credit goes to Pierce's roommate this year, senior Kristen Newlin. The two ended up spending their spring break together on campus last season, sticking together after the painful loss to LSU in the Elite Eight.
"We've best friends ever since," Pierce says cheerfully. "She's fun and she's goofy. My freshman and sophomore years, I had no desire to live with a teammate. I didn't want to carry anything back from practice. After a tough practice, you just spent three hours with a teammate and don't want to see them again. New is not that way. When she goes back to the dorm, she's just my friend. I know she's my teammate, but she's also my friend away from basketball. She's definitely relaxed me a lot."
"She's always the one who is encouraging me," the junior continues. "If I have a bad game, she'll tell me to keep shooting it."
How does a 6'5" post player help a 6'1" ankle-breaking guard to more confidently shoot from the perimeter? Newlin herself has comfort shooting the ball from deep, taking an equal number of three-pointers (33) to date in this season.
The two also spent some time this past summer at Newlin's home in Wyoming. One game they played is called "52" (the first person to 52 points wins). Each person keep shooting threes until they miss, and then they take the option of shooting a two- or one-point shot. Newlin was the one hitting at a hotter clip from outside.
"Every single game she would beat me, and I would get so mad," Pierce steams. "It didn't matter how mad I got. She kept beating me and beating me."
"I'm confident when she's out on the floor with me. I see her versatility as something that I admire," she adds of Newlin. "She's the tallest person on our team but shoots threes. If people are going to scout me as just a driver, hell, I can get out and shoot threes, too. It was definitely inspirational."
Pierce's shooting performance in Saturday's NCAA opener certainly was inspired. She finished the game with 14 points on 6-of-8 shooting, including 2-of-3 three-pointers. Pierce had not made multiple triples in a game since January.
"If we play '52' tomorrow in practice, I might be able to beat her," Pierce said with a beaming grin after her bombs against the Bengals. VanDerveer and Stanford would settle for beating Florida State and a few other teams the next couple weeks.
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