Last Friday afternoon, the Stanford women's basketball team won easily against an overmatched Yale team. But the game on Sunday against highly-regarded and number three-ranked Rutgers was on everyone's mind. Coach Van Derveer commented that Sunday would be a much better measure of her team. In many respects, with its quick and athletic guards and one superior post player, Rutgers is like the Florida State team that painfully ended Stanford's post season last Spring. Indeed, a fair estimate would put Rutgers, that made it all the way to the tournament's final game last Spring, a level above Florida State.
So what does Sunday night's hard-fought 60-58 victory over Rutgers portend? It was Rutgers' first game, and Stanford's second. Neither team shot well. Rutgers failed to block out Stanford's rebounders. Uncharacteristically, Stanford had 20 turnovers and only 10 assists. There is ample reason to expect substantial improvement for both teams as the season progresses. Still, the Rutgers game was a very important road victory for Stanford that could mean a lot at NCAA tournament seeding time.
It showed that the team could hang on and win on the road against one of the best teams in the country, an East Coast one at that. It demonstrated to a nationwide audience (and a crew of East Coast ESPN announcers relatively unfamiliar with Stanford basketball) that the Cardinal is for real. It provided two proven superstars (Candice Wiggins and Jayne Appel) a chance to demonstrate their mettle. And it was a wonderful coming-out party for freshman post player Kayla Pedersen.
Let's start with Pedersen. Early on, the 6' 4" freshman surprised Rutgers by stepping back and hitting a three-point shot. Showing her ball-handling ability and perimeter-player skills, Pedersen was smooth and controlled on drives to the basket, demonstrating agility with both the right and left hands. She was perfect on all six free throw attempts. She scored nine of Stanford's first 13 points, ending up with 15 on the night. She played the final half of the second stanza with four fouls, showing maturity and judgment in staying in the game. In 35 minutes on the court, she led the team with 16, yes 16 boards, including a crucial last-minute rebound of Melanie Murphy's three-point attempt that led to an assist to Appel for the game-tying basket. That was one of Pedersen's team-leading four assists. Not bad for a high pressure environment and a freshman playing only her second game.
There were other high points for Stanford. As expected, Wiggins (with 19 points) and Appel (with 18 points and 13 rebounds) provided most of the rest of the offense. Wiggins, Appel, and Pedersen accounted for 87% of Stanford's points (52 of 60). As Stanford fans have come to expect, Wiggins was at her best in the second half when the game was on the line. Her most memorable effort came when Candice got the ball near the sideline with the shot clock running down. She tried to drive toward the lane, had the ball knocked away, but recovered in time to launch an outstretched shot from below the waste just as the shot clock expired. No problem. The ball swished through the net and Wiggins was already headed back on defense with her fist raised. Just for good measure, Wiggins calmly sank the tie-breaking free throw (and one more) with one-tenth of second left on the board. Jayne Appel did what Stanford most needed from the powerful, but sometimes foul-prone post. She picked up only two whistles while playing almost the entire 40 minutes. The change from last season was remarkable. Her less aggressive defensive posture may result in fewer blocked shots (Appel is credited with two for the game) , but Stanford needs her in the game, shooting a high percentage (9 for 16).
On defense, Stanford played well against an opportunistic Rutgers team credited with eight steals. Were it not for a number of Rutgers transition baskets, Stanford would have won this game easily. The Cardinal employed a zone defense for a short time in the first half and for a longer time in the second. The defense, coupled with a help defense whenever the ball came to Rutgers center Kia Vaughn, limited Vaughn to four points. Rutgers' offense consisted primarily of the creative shot-making of guards Epiphanny Prince (21 points) and Matee Ajavon (11 points) and forward Essence Carson's 15 points (including three big buckets from beyond the arc). The Rutgers game also exposed some problems for Tara Van DerVeer's team to work out. One was the lack of offensive punch from perimeter players other than Wiggins. Stanford got six points from Rosalyn Gold-Unwude's two three pointers and two from Jillian Harmon. That was it. There was no production whatsoever from the bench. The eight-player rotation used in this game brought Cissy Pierce, Melanie Murphy, and Jeanette Pohlen into the game, but not one of those three was able to score. The trio produced two assists (from Pierce) and three turnovers (from Pohlen).
Gold-Unwude's three-point shooting (2 of 4 attempts) is sorely needed on this team. Gold-Unwude had difficulty getting the ball into the post, accounting for the bulk of her seven turnovers (against only one assist). Rutgers' intense defense deserves part of the credit for the high turnover numbers, but Stanford can and will do better. The guard that has the best career assists-to-turnover ratio - JJ Hones - did not play on Sunday. I liked the shot selection of guard Melanie Murphy, including a pull-up jumper and a noteworthy open three-point attempt in the last minute. Unfortunately the shots weren't falling for Murphy (0 for 3), but we can expect that will improve. Murphy took care of the ball well (no turnovers).
So what's next for Stanford? The post positions are thin, but our first-line players are formidable. As Rutgers' coach Vivian Stringer said after the game, "the four-five battery ate us up." The big question for Stanford is developing some offensive punch from a fifth perimeter position. The potential is there. Gold-Unwude's three-point shooting is a strength, but her drives and or pull- ups were not there on Sunday. Neither Gold-Unwude nor Murphy have demonstrated an ability to make left-handed attacks on the basket. Expect to see some further experimentation with perimeter positions. Murphy, Pierce, Pohlen, and (as she regains strength) JJ Hones are all likely to be in play. Pohlen may substitute for Harmon, particularly when Harmon is moved into the four spot to replace one of the post players. The Rutgers game was in-the-trench warfare. It was also very exciting to watch. Stanford appeared to be on the ropes when Rutgers had a full possession to make a game-winning shot. When they missed, Stanford got the ball to Wiggins with just a few seconds on the clock. Prince's unexpected last instant foul made the difference. When is the last time that the game-winning action occurred with one-tenth of a second on the clock? As coach Van Derveer said afterward, it was not always pretty. But Stanford showed heart, perseverance, and flashes of exceptional play. If there are no further injuries, the pieces are there. Properly assembled, Stanford can have a 2007/08 season to remember.
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