Card Crash the Party

The Bootleg's Women's Hoops Columnist Sue Bair reports in on the Cardinal women's grueling last-second 60-58 victory at Rutgers. Once again it was Candice Wiggins in crunch time, but it was the dynamic post duo of sophomore Jayne Appel and instant- impact freshman Kayla Peterson that thoroughly dominated the Scarlet Knights, providing the Card with an overwhelming 50-32 advantage on the boards.

Card Crash the Party

The seventh-ranked Stanford Cardinal were rude guests before even playing a minute against third-ranked Rutgers in New Jersey on Sunday. They showed up for a nationally televised game, but forgot to bring a storyline. Rutgers brought a Final Four ring ceremony and the Imus Aftermath™ to the table. All Stanford had was "Wiggins is really good", "Appel is really good too", and "Hey, who is that Pedersen kid?" No contest - Rutgers wins that round. The Scarlet Knights also had the home court, the experience, the renowned pressure defense, and the momentum from their 2007 run to the NCAA title game, where they ultimately lost to Tennessee. Rutgers is precisely the type of team with which Stanford is supposed to have the most trouble - athletic, physical, great off the dribble. Despite all that, the Cardinal came away with a hard-fought victory that was by no means perfectly played, but which produced some huge positives upon which to build for the coming grind.

As those who have followed Rutgers a bit might know, the Scarlet Knights are a very aggressive defensive team that specializes in making good teams look bad. Their games are frequently low scoring and "ugly". Offenses don't look smooth against Rutgers. This game was no exception, as both teams struggled to score, especially in the second half. Stanford also shot themselves in the collective foot repeatedly with costly turnovers throughout the game. Committing that many turnovers was certainly not great, but this early in the season, against a team like Rutgers, it was not as bad as it seemed. Rutgers will do that to a team. Many of the Stanford turnovers were of the self-inflicted but correctable variety - several walks, a few "three-second" violations, and some sloppy passing. It is a safe bet, however, that those turnovers will be tightened up relatively quickly. We have heard that the Stanford defense was ahead of the offense, and that showed in this game, although for an early-season contest, the offense showed remarkable promise. If you can score on Rutgers, you are doing something right. On the flip side, the Cardinal played their own brand of solid defense against the Scarlet Knights. Rutgers was able to penetrate to the basket more than was optimum, but let's face it, they are extremely good at doing so, and the defense did force them to take quite a few unsuccessful outside shots. In the second half, Rutgers shot only 28%. The Cardinal played a significant amount of zone defense, which was generally effective in keeping the dribble-penetration of the Rutgers guards at bay. Rutgers was totally unable to get their inside game going against the Cardinal's man or zone defenses.

Where Stanford had the enormous edge was in the paint. They out-rebounded the Scarlet Knights by a surprisingly large margin, 50-32, and doubled them up on the offensive boards, 20-10. Sensational sophomore center Jayne Appel and freshman forward Kayla Pedersen both played outstanding games. Appel had 18 points and 13 rebounds, but her best stat of the night might have been her 40 minutes played with only two fouls. Appel hit a new level even above that of her outstanding freshman season. Her face-up game, including a couple of pretty fade-aways, was a definite highlight. Her intensity and poise were also elevated to new heights. You could see it in her expression. Appel was focused and fully ready to remain so for forty minutes. She may have been a little fatigued by the end of the game, but you couldn't tell it from her play. She was a rock inside throughout, and when it came down to making the play late, she was there to take the pass from Pedersen and pop it in the basket to tie the game. This was supposed to be a battle between two possible All-American centers in Rutgers' Kia Vaughn and Appel. Granted, the Scarlet Knights may not fully utilize their fine center, but in this game, it was no contest - Vaughn finished with four points and seven rebounds. Seeing evidence that Appel can play forty minutes in a big game against an excellent opposing center, without incurring foul trouble, was a welcome revelation that bodes very well for the 2007/08 Cardinal.

Another welcome revelation was the exceptional play of freshman forward Kayla Pedersen. She had looked very good in her first two games, but this was a whole different story. Pedersen was everywhere. She hit three-point shots, looking as smooth as any guard; tracked down 16 rebounds, including five offensive boards; and played a very polished and mature game. Her decision-making was impeccable. Her calmness was astounding. She also did one more thing that gladdened the hearts of the Stanford Faithful - she made her foul shots. In fact, as a team, Stanford shot 83% from the line (15-18). Only Pedersen and senior guard Candice Wiggins made free throws (Appel was 0-1), so foul shooting as potential cause for concern is still an issue, but having Pedersen get off to such a good start was heartening. Pedersen did have some foul trouble, but as with many aspects of this game, a troubling stat is less so upon further contemplation. Two of her fouls were for moving screens, another was a close call when she attempted to take a charge, and the fourth was a mystery foul during a Rutgers free throw attempt. It should not be difficult to solve the screening issue. Pedersen managed to play the final ten minutes of the game with four fouls and managed very well. Stanford can't be totally sure that Pedersen or Jayne Appel will always avoid foul trouble, but the way they handled themselves against Rutgers strongly suggests that they can cope.

Another bright spot was senior guard Candice Wiggins. (Do we even need to say that?) The posts ruled the roost on the night, but Wiggins attracted the most defensive attention by far. The Scarlet Knights used 2007 Big East Defensive Player of the Year Essence Carson, among others, on Wiggins. Her defenders generally did a good job, limiting her shot attempts, especially in the first half. Stanford was not able to get her clean looks from three-point range (She finished a rare 0-3.). As the offense finds its groove, those looks should be easier to achieve. While Rutgers may have made it tough for Wiggins to get the ball, they often had to foul her to slow her down once she had it. She shot an impressive 9-11 from the free throw line. And when the game seesawed in the final minutes, Wiggins, as usual, was at her best. She scored eight points in the final four minutes including the two free throws that won the game in the final 1/10th of a second. Wiggins truly "led" her team. She did not force what was not there but still came up with the goods when it counted. It was also a pleasure to see how much explosiveness and energy Wiggins retained even at the bitter end. One of the reasons for that may have been the point guard play. While Wiggins did play a little point, she did not have to spend very much time there.

At first glance, guard play other than Wiggins was not strength on Sunday night. Starter Rosalyn Gold-Onwude struggled with turnovers, but one must consider the circumstances. Gold-Onwude had been out of action with a knee injury for a full season and missed some practice time during the past few weeks with a hamstring problem. It may not have been reasonable to suppose she would take up just where she left off in 2006. Playing against Chico State and Yale is not the same as playing against Rutgers on national television and in front of her hometown crowd (Gold-Onwude is from Queens, NY). Gold-Onwude appeared to be rushing just a hair against Rutgers, got a little out of sync, and never was able to recover. It was tough game for her, but judging from her fine play early this year and her past success as a freshman, the Cardinal can expect that she will be in much better rhythm in future games. With a young player just returning from a serious injury, a little patience is required. And let us not forget that the two clutch three-point shots she drained were critical for keeping the Cardinal in the game. Her shooting and her point guard skills will be a vital component of any team success. One early "off-game" does not change that analysis.

The other reason point guard play was encouraging against Rutgers was because of "0". That is sophomore guard Melanie Murphy's new number, and that was also the number of turnovers she had in sixteen minutes. Murphy did not score but she came in and stabilized the point guard position late in the game, allowing Wiggins to play off the ball. As the game clock ticked towards zero, Murphy was in the game, taking instructions from coach Tara VanDerveer on the which final plays they were to run. The coaches could have used Wiggins as the point guard in the waning moments. They chose instead to give the job to Murphy. "0" never looked so good. Murphy did not score (0-3), but attempted open shots that were well within her capabilities to make. Overall, with the excessive turnovers it is pretty hard to claim that point guard was a strength, but looking beyond the numbers the situation is far more encouraging. Candice Wiggins was not forced to serve as the Stanford point guard on Sunday. Gold-Onwude and Murphy did the job, if perhaps not perfectly. They will have plenty of time to work out the kinks. Sophomore guard JJ Hones will also be added to the mix soon, and will help. Hones played a little against Yale on Friday, but has not quite recovered enough from her knee injury to go against Rutgers at this stage.

Beating Rutgers does more for the Cardinal than simply giving them a nice early win to feel good about and impress the pollsters. Aside from the outstanding individual efforts, what stands out most is that the team fought with intensity and aggressiveness throughout the game. They were mentally tough. If those qualities continue to manifest themselves throughout the season, the Cardinal will be in excellent shape.

OK, about that ending… There does not appear to be much argument that Rutgers guard Epiphanny Prince, who had a wonderful game otherwise (21 points and 9 rebounds), did indeed foul Candice Wiggins with less than one second remaining in the game with the game tied, thus sending Wiggins to the free throw line to win the game. Wiggins was dribbling the ball and Prince took a swipe to steal it, grabbing or hitting Wiggins on the arm in the process. Should the refs have called it? Yes. It was not a smart play by Prince and she later said as much. She may have thought there was time for her to steal the ball and take a shot. If she had been successful in that aim, Rutgers wins. Since Prince committed a foul instead, her gamble obviously did not pay off, so she and her team had to face and live with the consequences. That foul was just as real as the possible steal would have been. There is also no way for the referee to be exactly sure of the time remaining, though she surely knew there was not much. If Wiggins had wanted to turn and heave the ball, she should have had a foul-free opportunity to do so. Even if the resulting shot would have been highly unlikely to hit its mark, it would not have been totally impossible. It was not the most satisfying way to end a game, and it was sad for Prince, who had played so well, but if you pay your money (swipe at the ball), you take your chances (on a whistle).

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