When last the fans at Maples Pavilion saw their #5-ranked (ESPN/USAToday Poll) Stanford Cardinal (6-1), the team was getting soundly thumped in an exhibition game against USA Basketball, and head coach Tara VanDerveer was expressing her hope that her young charges would learn to play at a pace approaching that of the future Olympians. Approximately two weeks later, in Stanford's home opener on Wednesday, the Nike was on the other foot, as the Card did unto USF what Team USA had done unto them. The Cardinal had no trouble completely smothering the Dons, who are now 3-4, by the decisive score of 96-61. This time it was the opposing coach wishing her team had been better able to handle the tempo. "Their size clearly bothered us, at every spot," commented USF head coach Tanya Haave when asked what had given her team the most trouble. "And then I'd say the tempo. We couldn't get any shots that we're used to getting, and then they'd get their break going and we had a hard time getting back on that."
Stanford started a three-guard line-up, using junior forward Jillian Harmon off the bench, and often substituted posts Jayne Appel and Kayla Pedersen for each other, which kept the Cardinal smaller than usual, but allowed them to push the pace. Said Tara VanDerveer, "I really liked how our team came out with a lot of energy. We just got off a really long road trip. We didn't show any signs of it. We're working on playing a more up-tempo style and I liked what I saw." Harmon has been extremely effective in the last three games since being moved to the first reserve spot and being asked to play the "4" more frequently. She scored 16 points against ODU, 13 against Temple, and now 16 against USF on 6-8 shooting (in only 14 minutes). Harmon confessed to feeling a bit tired and jetlagged after the long road trip, but if scoring over a point-a-minute is the result, charter Harmon her own plane and let her rack up the miles.
Stanford's fine freshman class put forth an efficient and dominating effort by accounting for 42 Cardinal points, including 11 points from guard Hannah Donaghe in her slightly delayed college debut. Donaghe missed the first six games with a hip injury. "She's an outstanding young lady who has worked very hard. She has such a great attitude," said VanDerveer. "She knocks her shots down. She's very athletic and she's going to really help our team." Shooting 4-5 in her first-ever action, including one three-point shot, indicates that this "springy" athlete will be a welcome asset. Fellow frosh Jeanette Pohlen and Kayla Pedersen were 6-11 for 13 points and 8-9 for 18 points (including two from the free throw line) respectively. Pohlen also contributed 6 rebounds, 5 assists and 2 steals. Pedersen attacked the basket at will from all positions, as she was simply too big and too skilled for the Dons to stop. "That's not bad," joked Tara VanDerveer about the frosh scoring frenzy. "But the seniors are probably passing them the ball, or the juniors." It is worth noting that Pohlen is shooting 57% after seven games, which is the highest on the team (except for Donaghe's 80% in the one game in which she has played).
If one were inclined to nitpick the Cardinal's effort, it would be a difficult task. The Card recorded 26 assists against 12 turnovers in a fast-paced game. Point guards Ros Gold-Onwude and JJ Hones combined for 10 assists but only 1 turnover. Sophomore Hones has been showing signs of rounding into form after a long rehab from her February ACL tear. USF could not put much pressure on the Stanford guards, but 4 assists, 0 turnovers, and 2-4 shooting for Hones in 23 minutes is an encouraging sign she is getting her basketball legs back under her.
The taller Stanford team also had little trouble blocking and disrupting USF shots the few times the Dons tried to go inside. The Cardinal swatted away nine shots (Appel had four blocks and Pedersen two). The rebounding margin was a healthy 17 (46-29). Four Stanford players snared six or more rebounds; seven wearing cardinal grabbed three or more. Junior forward/center Morgan Clyburn had a fine game, making good use of a relatively rare chance at extensive playing time (20 minutes). Clyburn hustled resolutely to rebounds and looked confident shooting and handling the ball. Several times she roared in to grab a rebound in a manner reminiscent of her younger teammates, Pedersen and Pohlen.
Stanford's "big two", center Jayne Appel and guard Candice Wiggins, both had relatively calm outings, but they played minimal minutes and had no need to extend themselves excessively. Resting Appel (8 points, 7 rebounds in 18 minutes) after heavy minutes in the double overtime win at Utah and in the three games at the Paradise Jam mattered more than piling up numbers against a team without the posts to contend with her. Appel had no problem dominating the smaller USF posts and often worked the high post to pass the ball away from the gathering green hoards that descended whenever she had the ball. Wiggins converted on a couple of beautiful long passes en route to 13 points, and contributed a few sweet passes of her own, including one looping rainmaker to Jillian Harmon that led to an easy bucket. Keep it moving, nothing to nitpick here. Perhaps our hypothetical nitpicker would note that the perimeter defense could have been better, especially early. USF hit 6-12 three-point shots in the first half, and guard Shay Rollins finished 5-11 from beyond the three-point arc. If Rollins had not had a big game, the 35-point scoring margin could have been even greater. One other small nit that could be picked was that the starting posts had a few too many turnovers (three each for Pedersen and Appel, though Appel balanced hers out with three assists). Overall though, for Stanford vs. USF, the nitpicker had mighty slim pickings.
This blowout of USF was not only a fitting way to conduct a home opener, it was a welcome change from the struggles the Cardinal endured over their first six games, which were all away from home and too often featured poor shooting, slow starts, and frantic comebacks. Character-building stuff to be sure, and a sign the team is mentally tough, but not suitable on an everyday basis. Immediately preceding the USF game was a not-so-brief interlude when the Cardinal jetted off to the Virgin Islands for the 2007 Paradise Jam, where they had the rare opportunity to gaze upon both giant iguanas and Geno Auriemma at the same time. Some things in life are indeed priceless. After losing to UConn in a game where everything seemed to go wrong from the start (missed bunnies to open the game, followed by foul trouble and icy-cold shooting), the Cardinal regrouped to beat ODU and then Temple, the latter victory requiring a 17-point second half comeback. It has been a time of adjustment for the team, who have been reassessing and reworking following season-ending knee injuries to sophomore forward Michelle Harrison (whose absence, combined with that of injured freshman forward Ashley Cimino, has severely crippled the frontcourt depth) and sophomore guard Melanie Murphy (who had been playing better and better as part of the Cardinal's three-headed point guard combo, and who single-handedly breathed life into an otherwise certain loss at Utah).
The injuries cast a pall over the 6-1 record and push the Cardinal onto thin ice where any further injuries could well send them plummeting into the icy depths. All the Card can do is adjust and keep moving before the ice cracks. Said head coach Tara VanDerveer, "It affects our team a lot, but it's nothing that we can control. These things happen and unfortunately they happen at a higher frequency in women's basketball than they should. We're very disappointed about it. Both Mel (Murphy) and Michelle (Harrison) are being very mature and looking forward. They're excited for their teammates. They plan to have their surgeries, rehab, and be back." As a senior, Candice Wiggins feels the loss of her teammates acutely. "We care about each other so much, so to see an injury like that, it's hard," lamented Wiggins after the USF game. "I know for me personally, it is really rough because this is my last year. I will not really have any opportunity to play with them again unless it's farther in the future. The biggest thing is that we have more of an appreciation. We play for them because we know that they're missing the opportunity."
The Cardinal is mutating before our eyes. Although the team has dominating posts in Appel and Pedersen, they do not have the depth to pound every team into submission from the paint, certainly not teams like Connecticut, with their multiple talented posts and fouls to give. The Card do have plenty of guard depth even without Murphy, although depending on two point guards who are fighting their way back to form from injuries is somewhat daunting. Outside shooting too has been problematic, to put it mildly. What are the Cardinal to do? One solution is to diversify, rotate, and pick up the pace. Explains junior forward Jillian Harmon, "Tara (VanDerveer) calls it tag team. We want the starters in the game to really push the pace and move the ball up the court, and then to have people sub in for them and do the same thing. That way we get more possessions and more shots up." Candice Wiggins appreciates the better balance that such a plan of aggressive and open offense should produce, and adds, "I think it's great. The best thing that could happen is that people are looking for their shots. It is going to open things up. Everyone having that confidence and knowing that our offense is very balanced, I think that's the hardest to defend. I'm really happy that everyone is contributing." The final form of this slightly mutant Cardinal has yet to be determined. The coaches and players are still puzzling it all out. If the USF game was an experiment, then the results were both pleasing and positive. The Cardinal will undoubtedly continue to change before our eyes. We can only hope that no more unpleasant surprises shove them farther upon the treacherous, thinning ice, where no matter what form they take, the Cardinal will probably have to swim for it.
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