On Saturday night, the Card shocked that monkey and sent it packing! The "monkey" in this case obviously being the plus-sized simian draped over the backs of the Cardinal for many years of losing to the always tough Tennessee Lady Vols. It took overtime to completely banish the beast, 73-69, but gone that monkey finally is. Bye, bye. Go find another back to bend. The heft of the offending monkey was visible early in the first half, when Stanford played as though they could feel it breathing fetid fumes on their cheeks (This was an old monkey not given to dental hygiene.). The weight of the creature was even more apparent with less than 20 seconds to go in the second half, when senior All-American guard Candice Wiggins, normally unflappable from the free throw line (at >90%), missed both of the free throws that almost certainly would have put the game away for the Cardinal. Instead Candace Parker and Tennessee sent the game to overtime, thus giving the monkey a few more moments to cling to Cardinal backs. The monkey does not leave easily or quietly. A monkey on your back by definition has a strong grip. For the past 11 contests, all the Cardinal could do was use the annual Tennessee loss as a "learning experience" and wonder how they could come so close without managing to come out a winner. Said Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer, "We don't have to play them. They don't have to play us. We're fortunate to be able to play against Tennessee. I've been really proud of our teams. We've had a lot of close games just like this one that have gone the other way. Playing Tennessee is always good for us, whether we've lost or we've won. They have always helped us get better." It is always much nicer to be helped via a win. That cough syrup is much tastier than the one marked "loss."
The Cardinal won this game not by magically hitting all their shots or having a miracle day where everything went like a dream. They struggled with turnovers, especially in the first half (19 for the game and 12 in the first half alone!). They were not steaming hot from three-point range (only 4-12 and 1-6 for Wiggins). They did not require the Vols to have a horrid shooting day (Tennessee shot 59% in the first half, 40% for the game, and were 5-11 from the three-point line.) Rather the Cardinal won by playing gritty basketball, plugging away to come back from 11 points down in the first half and keeping their cool down the stretch. They did not play over their heads. In fact, they could have played better. As we suspected, they did not need to do magic, they only needed to play their game and play it hard. Proclaimed VanDerveer, "Tennessee is a great team with great players. Our defense won it for us, and our rebounding, things for which Tennessee is really known. Our players played smart and hard. We didn't execute as well as we wanted to offensively. Candice [Wiggins] was trying to help the TV ratings, going into overtime. I'm really proud of the way our team stuck with things."
Just before the end of the first half, the Cardinal cut an eleven-point Lady Vol lead down to six, a run that gave them critical momentum and set the stage for Stanford to close the gap to within one point early in the second half. "During that run, we picked up our defense completely," said Wiggins. "Momentum going into the second half was key. We got a few steals and transition points, and took it to the basket, and that really opened up our defense and got us good momentum." In the second half, the Cardinal held the Vols to 35% shooting and turned a -1 first half rebounding margin into a +6 margin for the game. They cut their turnovers from 12 in the first half to only seven more in the second half plus the overtime (several coming on lob entry passes that sailed beyond the reach of center Jayne Appel). Assists increased as the Vols had trouble with the Stanford high/low game between Appel and forward Kayla Pedersen, who had five assists. Tennessee head coach Pat Summitt was not pleased with the Vols' defense of the high/low strategy. "We really broke down a lot in defending their high/low game, which they did a tremendous job in spacing on the floor. Within their high/low game, we let the ball get into the middle of the floor and Stanford did a great job in being able to pass from the high/low. Candice [Wiggins] stepped up when she needed to step up and made big plays."
Coach Summitt was also displeased with the disparity in fouls. Tennessee had 24 fouls to 13 for Stanford and shot 10 free throws to 32 for the Card. Said Summitt, "Candace Parker is not coming into the press conference because she's in [the locker room] a little beat up. I thought she fought hard but when I look at the fact that we struggled to get there I have to go back and figure out how I can help this team do a better job of getting to the free throw line. It was pretty frustrating the entire basketball game." Candice Wiggins and her frequent drives to the basket accounted for 16 Stanford free throw attempts. None of the Lady Vol guards tried to attack the basket very often, as Tennessee looked to establish their inside game with the almost unstoppable Candace Parker. A number of Tennessee fouls at the end of regulation and the end of the overtime were intentional, and since Stanford was in the bonus, caused a rapid accumulation of Cardinal free throw attempts. And even though Pedersen, the Cardinal player primarily charged with guarding Parker, picked up her fourth foul midway through the second half, Summitt felt her star forward was not being protected sufficiently by the officials, as she had not been in previous games this year, according to Summitt. "I'm going to take my time and watch each one of those possessions because it happens to her all the time. It's part of being the best player in the game, but at some point in time it doesn't quite seem appropriate."
As Stanford fans know well from unhappy past experiences with the generally more aggressive Lady Vols, to the aggressors usually go the spoils and the free throws. The Cardinal had lots of aggressors, lots of free throws, and lots of heroes. Cardinal sophomore center Jayne Appel totally outplayed her Vol counterpart, finishing with 19 points, 14 rebounds, 4 blocks and 3 steals. Tennessee senior center Nicky Anosike had 2 points, 4 rebounds, and fouled out of the game. Appel started tentatively but a pep talk from associate head coach Amy Tucker got her going in the right direction. "Amy [Tucker] told me at halftime to stop playing scared and just go up with it. We had 20 minutes to just leave it all on the floor," said Appel.
Appel did help out on Candace Parker, but the primary defender on the 2007 Wooden Award winner and Final Four MVP was freshman Pedersen, with a great deal of double team help by guard Candice Wiggins. Explained Tara VanDerveer, "Kayla worked really hard and did a great job, really played good position defense, and then Candice did a great job of coming in and helping, trying to double Candace Parker. Candace Parker is a fabulous player, just a terrific player. For our freshman, Kayla Pedersen, to step in and have the poise and the determination - I'm really proud of how she played. Kayla wasn't afraid to be physical with her." Pedersen also contributed 9 points, 8 rebounds, and 5 assists. Another quiet hero was freshman guard Jeanette Pohlen, who scored but 2 points and had 2 assists. Pohlen's contribution was 36 minutes of smart play and tight defense. She had a hand in holding Vol sharpshooter Angie Bjorklund scoreless, helped handle the Vols' star off-guard Alexis Hornbuckle, and even spent some time keeping exceptionally quick point guard Shannon Bobbitt from slipping into the lane. Stanford's defense kept the Vols working hard to get the ball to Parker, and kept Parker working hard to score.
Cardinal superstar Candice Wiggins did not quite have a game for the ages, but she did play a sterling all-around game, a few off-the-mark lob passes and a couple of brief moments of bedevilment from the shoulder-sitting monkey notwithstanding. As was mentioned previously, Wiggins did a wonderful job doubling on Candace Parker, and several times stole or knocked the ball away while on the double-team. Her outside shooting was not clicking, but she compensated well by attacking off the dribble. Wiggins made several circus "and 1" shots and ended up with 22 points, 6 rebounds, and 3 steals. In the last 90 seconds of regulation, with the Cardinal down by two, she hit two free throws, grabbed a rebound, hit a jump shot to put the Cardinal up by two at 61-59, then stole a pass meant for Parker, got fouled, and hit the two free throws that put Stanford up by four with 30 seconds to play. Whew! Parker hit a quick two, and Stanford got the ball to Wiggins expecting her to be fouled. The rest was almost history until the ghosts of Stanford/Tennessee games past and that darned monkey flipped two Wiggins' free throws out of the basket. It was still quite the display. Wiggins scored six points, got a critical steal and grabbed a rebound that drew a foul, all in the last 90 seconds. It was almost perfect, but it may have been better that is was not, because it gave the Cardinal a chance at two things that can only help in the future.
The first thing was to create one more hero-making moment, this time for point guard Rosalyn Gold-Onwude. Like the rest of her teammates, Gold-Onwude suffered through a turnover- plagued first half. However, as the game progressed, her play settled down and even blossomed. In the second half and overtime, the Cardinal point guard scored 11 points, grabbed 3 rebounds, dished out 2 assists and lost only 1 turnover. And in that overtime, Gold-Onwude hit clutch shot after clutch shot, including two long three-point shots and the two free throws that iced the game in the last five seconds. Gold-Onwude score nine of the 10 points the Cardinal accumulated in the overtime. Then she hopped on a plane home for Christmas. It's a wonder she did not just start flapping her arms and take off. Everyone has seen Wiggins play hero. Gold-Onwude took a turn in the spotlight, which would not have happened if the clinging monkey had not been harassing Wiggins. This can only help the young point guard as she continues to recover her post-ACL feel for the game.
The second thing the overtime win accomplished was to continue the "gutsy Cardinal" theme seen in games against Rutgers, Utah, and Temple, among others. Stanford battled back from an 11-point deficit, and appeared to have the game won with their best free-throw shooter on the line ("Ice" is good at icing.). Then, stunningly, they had to go to overtime. Despite what could have been a major psychological hurdle, the Cardinal never faltered. Said Candice Wiggins, "The overtime, I blame that completely on myself because I have to hit those free throws. Our team is really tough, and when we got into overtime, we had a focus and a togetherness - that fight that we have is what got us the victory today."
Finally vanquishing the titanic Lady Vols was not only highly satisfying, it was deeply meaningful, not only for this season but for future seasons. There is a long way to go this year, but if the Card can stay sharp throughout Pac-10 play, which opens this Friday, they may have an inside track to one of the four coveted #1 NCAA seeds. The brutal schedule turned out to be a boon; Stanford is 10-1 with three top-10 victories. Conference play may allow teams from more powerful conferences like the ACC to make that claim, but the Cardinal have made their non-conference case for 2007-08. In the larger view, getting this particular monkey off their backs was necessary to move ahead. The Cardinal have had too many disappointments/injuries at inopportune times, controversial calls or non-calls at the brink of Final Fours, the parade of hard-to-swallow losses to Tennessee. The team and its fans almost desperately needed one of those signature moments, like defeating #1 ranked Tennessee, to go their way. Someone else always seemed to get the break, the luck, the bounce, the call, the health. Simply being consistently among the top ten or so teams in the country was great, but the Card needed a breakthrough, needed to get that monkey off their backs. As was evident in the game on Saturday, carrying that weight can wear down even the strongest of hearts. And interestingly enough, smaller moments where the Cardinal were on the "right" side of the tipping point, like at Rutgers and even at Utah, may have helped build in this team the wherewithal to seize those larger moments more easily. At least now, no one will be adding up years and asking how long has it been, when will you win? Maybe this one monkey removal (monkeyectomy?) will set the stage for another, as in when are the Cardinal finally getting back to a Final Four? Is that particular monkey perhaps starting to lose its grip?
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