Team USA Finds Focus vs. Stanford
China? The Czech Republic? Russia? Australia? Which opponent will the Stanford Cardinal's contribution Friday night help Team USA to vanquish? The Card did their level best to help USA Basketball prepare to face the top national teams from around the globe. The 97-62 final score was perhaps more similar to a Team USA vs. Costa Rica match-up than one featuring top rivals Russia or Australia, as the Cardinal was forced to contend with a highly focused Team USA, who were playing their last game of a whirlwind college tour. After fighting a tendency towards early complacency throughout the tour, Team USA finally achieved that focused, 40-minute game for which they had been searching.
"We've had some really good moments on this tour, but we haven't put together, in our minds, a 40-minute game," said Team USA head coach Ann Donovan. Well, they found their focus against Stanford…emphatically. "We had to start off strong and smart and I thought we did that," continued Donovan. Team USA started strong and finished stronger. It was no contest, but it did allow Team USA to go their separate way on a high note. The Cardinal might have preferred a little less focus from this strongest-of-all opponent, but after all, this was exactly how it should have gone. The American Olympic team should not give a bunch of young college kids much of an opportunity. This time, Team USA's focus was like a laser, and they really took it to the collegians.
The American national team did almost everything supremely well. They shot almost 60% for the game, including nine of 16 from three-point range. They produced 27 assists against only nine turnovers. In the first half they let only three turnovers slip away, against 13 assists. In previous contests Team USA had struggled with sluggish starts and turnovers, so the sparkling 3:1 assist to turnover ratio was especially pleasing to coach Donovan, who thought the way her team shared the ball was perhaps their biggest strength on the night. It did not hurt that Sue Bird, Kara Lawson (who had her own Sacramento Monarch cheering section), and ex-Stanford star Jamie Carey (who received a very warm welcome), buried three-points at an over 50% rate.
Except for a few brief flashes, the court dominance of Team USA was oddly unspectacular - rather, it was coldly efficient. Their superb passing led to many open looks, which were dropped home with ease. Steals were converted to points like lightening. Everything looked smooth. Everything looked easy. Stanford worked hard on defense, but to no avail. Said Stanford senior guard Candice Wiggins, who trained with Team USA for several weeks in September, "If they're open at all, they're going to knock them down." They were, and they did. The Cardinal did keep the game close for a while. The score was 27-24 Team USA with only five minutes to go in the first half, at which point Team USA stepped on the gas by poaching several steals that led to easy layups - two by guard Diana Taurasi and one by forward Seimone Augustus. The beginning of the second half was more of the same, and the lead swelled to 25 points within four short minutes. There was nothing for the overmatched Cardinal to do but soldier on and take pride in small victories.
Stanford did ultimately win the rebounding battle 36-32, which was somewhat surprising, given the size and experience of the Team USA posts, which included the legendary Lisa Leslie, who contributed three points, five rebounds, and five assists while working her way into playing shape after giving birth a few months ago. Stanford did not execute their offense poorly, considering the formidable quality of the opposition (15 assists on 23 made baskets is not ideal, but isn't so bad either). Turnovers continued to be a bugaboo for the Cardinal, who gave up 21, fairly evenly divided between halves. The Card shot reasonably well from beyond the three-point arc. Their percentage was not super, at 33% (5-15), but five different Stanford players hit a three-point shot, and only one make was from proven shooters Wiggins (1-3) or junior guard Rosalyn Gold-Onwude (0-1).
Coming into the contest, head coach Tara VanDerveer had planned to play everyone on the roster to give each and every one of the players the rare opportunity to compete against the best players in the world. Candice Wiggins only played 19 minutes, of which a mere six were in the second half. VanDerveer thought that her team did some nice things, but commented, "I wouldn't say that was necessarily as good as we could play. There are things that we can take away from it. We can play better." She said ruefully of the supremely focused effort from Team USA, "We definitely don't want to be the last one on someone's USA schedule, helping them on their focus. We're doing our civic duty, I guess." VanDerveer was very impressed with Ann Donovan's team, "They played extremely well. The USA team came out and shot the ball extremely well. They play at a pace that our team is not used to. We need to play at a better pace."
Senior guard Candice Wiggins and sophomore center Jayne Appel agreed with VanDerveer's sentiments. Each clearly seemed unhappy to be on the wrong end of a 35-point loss, even though that extreme point differential was to be expected when a college team bumps up against the future USA Olympic team steamrolling through the Maples Pavilion terrain like a powerful avalanche. Wiggins' discomfort was not assuaged by the expectedness of the dominance. She wanted better for her team. Wiggins assessed the Cardinal's play; "Unfortunately, tonight I think it was just a situation where a lot of us were really excited. We wanted to play hard but for some reason, maybe nerves…" The All-American Stanford senior finished with seven points and three assists. Wiggins does love the high-level team energy that carried the Card to the upset of Rutgers, however. "We're a young team, so the energy is a very youthful energy, like our backs are against the wall and we're ready to compete with anyone," she explained. Against Team USA, "anyone" was simply too much, but the exhibition should only further stoke the competitive fire of Wiggins and her teammates.
Jayne Appel thought the physicality of the game was not dissimilar to what she faced in the Rutgers tangle of last weekend. What impressed her most from Team USA was how smart her experienced opponents played. Appel had some impressive moments herself, but ended up an uncharacteristic 5-15 with 10 total points. Towards the end of the game, with her replacement waiting at the scorer's table, she made one last stand, finishing aggressively with an assist on a Cissy Pierce three-point shot, an emphatic block on Team USA's 6'6" center, Kara Braxton, and a strong post move for a score. "I don't think Jayne understands how good she is. Jayne can take it at anybody she plays against," Coach VanDerveer later said. "When Jayne was aggressive, she looked very good inside."
Freshman forward Kayla Pedersen was once again a major factor. She led the Cardinal with 11 points and nine rebounds. Pedersen played a team-high 31 minutes and did not looked fazed at all by the illustrious nature of her opponents. Junior forward Jillian Harmon did most of her damage in the first half, and produced 10 points and eight rebounds for the game. Every Stanford player scored at least three points. The Cardinal are still trying to settle the rotation after losing sophomore forward Michelle Harrison to a torn ACL suffered in the Yale game. Her loss will be keenly felt. The rotation will now be more guard-oriented, with a three-guard offense frequently employed. "Our biggest puzzle to figure out is our point guard situation. Once we do that, I think we'll be in better shape," stated Tara VanDerveer. "Today Candice (Wiggins) is our best point guard, but we're hoping that maybe in a month…" VanDerveer explained further, "Ros (Gold-Onwude) is coming along. You've got three very inexperienced point guards with two of them coming off of injuries, so it is going to take a little while, but I think we'll be able to play different players, based on the situation." VanDerveer concluded, "You can never have too many good point guards,"
The Team USA-Stanford exhibition was in many respects an odd game to watch for Stanford fans. Since when do they see their Cardinal overwhelmed by such a powerful force? It might have felt to the Cardinal Faithful much like it must have felt to the Yale fans a week ago, when Stanford dropped by to pin an oversized but expected loss on them. Watching a team of fabulously talented players execute at a very high level was a treat, as was simply eyeballing so many of the world's best players, many of whom had never before played at Maples Pavilion. Still, it was freakishly strange having so little about which to cheer. What? Stanford is not winning and has no chance to win? My brain struggles with the concept. Plain & simple, Team USA was too good. Hats off to them and the 40 minutes of focus that gave those in attendance a fascinating look at the best playing their best. Glad the Cardinal was available to help get the national team's focus sharp. No trouble, don't mention it. Come back if you need any more assistance! Mexico or Japan might not be available, but Wiggins, Appel and cohorts would not mind one more shot at the best. They probably went to sleep dreaming about how to get where you are. Don't underestimate the power of youthful energy.
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