A Recent History Of The Tennessee Series

In the wake of the now #2-ranked Cardinal's 73-69 overtime victory over the previously undefeated and top-ranked Lady Vols of Tennessee last week, TheBootleg.com's Women's Hoops Columnist Tom Knecht (Jr.) looks back at the multiple agonies and the long-awaited ecstasy in the recent history of the storied Stanford-Tennessee women's basketball rivalry.

A Recent History Of The Stanford-Tennessee Series

or… "Victory is fleeting. Losing is forever." - Billie Jean King

I began following Stanford Women's basketball in 2003, Nicole Powell's senior year. Susan King-Borchardt, Chelsea Trotter, Kelley Suminski, and Sebnem Kimyacioglu rounded out the starting squad, with freshman post Kristen Newlin coming off the bench, but Powell was the dominant force on that sixth-ranked team. Tennessee came into Maples ranked #2 and ready to play. The Cardinal led by as many as 14 points, with minutes to go, but could not stave off a Lady Vol rally; the bleeding was sure to stop when Tennessee's Loree Moore got caught cheating for the fifth time with thirty seconds left and down two points; with the ball in Stanford's hands, and the Cardinal needing only a score to put the game away or at least to run off the majority of time remaining in the possession, Tennessee's LaToya Davis stole the ball from Suminski at mid-court to tie the game. Powell drove the length of the court in the remaining seconds, missing her shot and a chance to avoid overtime. The sold-out crowd saw the Lady Vols prevail in overtime 70-66, and I was forever changed as a basketball fan.

The 2003-2004 Stanford squad had a roller-coaster season, ending up a sixth-seed in the NCAA tournament. Despite previous losses and injuries, Coach Tara Vanderveer had the Cardinal ready for tournament time, rolling through their first two games en route to an upset of Vanderbilt 57-55 on a Powell drive and pass to Suminski, who dropped a three-pointer with 0.3 seconds left to win the game. The Cardinal and Suminski would have their shot at redemption against the Lady Volunteers.

In this Elite Eight matchup between these two schools, we witnessed another game-winning shot with time running out, but it was Tasha Butts of Tennessee spinning and jumping around Powell to bank in a prayer off the glass with 1.7 seconds remaining to give Tennessee a 62-60 victory, advancing the Lady Vols to the Final Four, and sending our "overachieving" squad back to Palo Alto. The Cardinal would only be losing one starter, and returning almost all of that tournament team. While Powell, a three-time Kodak All-American would be graduating, another (future) Kodak All-American would take her place, as would another Kodak All-American who was watching from the sidelines.

The tournament-tested Cardinal squad really started to turn some heads down on The Farm and across the nation during the 2004-2005 season. Coach Vanderveer repeatedly expressed her "love" for this team loaded with talent. Susan King-Borchardt, Sebnem Kimyacioglu, Azella Perryman, Kelley Suminski, and T'Nae Thiel were all seniors, and all worthy of starting on just about any team. Despite a team so deep with skill and experience, it was the freshman phenom Candice Wiggins and sophomore sensation Brooke Smith that were the foundation of this powerhouse squad. Smith, a transfer from Duke, had post moves that were making people woozy from all the twisting and spinning, and Wiggins was renewing arguments for "greatest Cardinal ever". The second-ranked Cardinal flew to Knoxville to meet the #9 Lady Volunteers; surely this team would finally break the losing streak against Tennessee, even at Thompson-Boling Arena.

As in horror movies, where you can never trust that the chainsaw and knife wielding maniac is truly dead, you can never count Tennessee out of a game, even when you've delivered a blow that would put away most mortal teams. Tennessee was up by 11 points with 6:51 remaining, but Stanford chipped away at the deficit, eventually down by three with the ball in Cardinal hands and just seconds left in the game. Suminski buried a three to tie the game with just 5.6 seconds to go. Surely, with this momentum, we would prevail in overtime, or so I thought.

That thought evaporated, to my horror, as Tennessee's Shauna Zolman drove down the middle of the court, and heaved up a 25-footer, which snapped the net for three and for victory. I will remind you that the college three-point line is 19 feet, 9 inches, and the NBA line is 23 feet, 9 inches. How do you properly describe such a shot? How do you convey a horror over a shot like that, and still pay its due respect? Incredible? Unworldly? Miraculous? Mythical? Ridiculous? Ludicrous? I know: Supernatural. The fabulous five seniors never got their Tennessee victory.

The 2005 meeting between the two schools brought Candace Parker to Maples. The red-shirt freshman for Tennessee was the dunking, scoring, blocking machine she was promised to be. The #2 Lady Vols and Parker helped sell out Maples, and helped snap a 23-game home winning streak for the # 12 Cardinal. Stanford had a one-point lead with 6:05 to go in the game, but too many mistakes in crunch time let this game get away. This inexperienced team had only one starting senior, Krista Rappahahn; Clare Bodensteiner utilized her red-shirt year in hopes of being able to win a title the following year, and Shelley Nweke would never overcome her diabolical knee injuries.

The 2006 meeting was Smith and Newlin's final Tennessee game, now in their senior year; with Wiggins now a junior, and Jayne Appel first off the bench as a freshman, surely we would beat the Lady Vols, even in Knoxville. This game was a disaster, and foretold future disaster in the tournament. Appel's 23 points, 5 blocks, and 5 rebounds, and a 60-footer by Wiggins to end the first half could not overcome victory by the eventual NCAA champions. The Cardinal led only the first three and a half minutes in the game, and never got closer than nine in the second half. This team, as with previous teams, had to contend with the accusation of being "nice girls" from Palo Alto. Frequently, teams would bring a very physical game plan to bear against the Cardinal, and frankly, it usually worked. There is sometimes truth to rumor; this team and previous teams could be intimidated if you got them out of their rhythm.

"Hence the saying: If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle." - Sun Tzu, Art of War

With Smith and Newlin gone, the 2007-2008 squad found itself anchoring a sophomore and freshman post tandem with a bevy of guards. We were also deep in something else: ridiculous toughness. There is a now very apparent reason why black road uniforms were debuted against Rutgers. What could have been a rebuilding and retooling year has turned into a year where this Stanford Cardinal team beats other teams like they owe them money. The Cardinal took on a tough road schedule, as well as an exhibition game against Team USA, and came out with a 5-1 record, their only loss came in a winnable game against the #1 team in the land, Connecticut. #10 Baylor came to Maples, and took a whupping from #5 Stanford. It was remarkable how the Cardinal never wavered in resolve as it battled a physical Bear team, which never led by more than five and never led at all after the 11.52 mark in the first half. Who are these "tough women", the anti-"nice-girls"?

As I made the trek to Palo Alto to see the 2007 Cardinal/Lady Vol game, this time with my newborn son in tow, I couldn't help but feel this was the year Stanford beats Tennessee. Reflecting on the Rutgers, Baylor, and even the Connecticut game, I wondered if there has been a tougher starting Cardinal lineup. Freshman Kayla Pedersen does not play like a freshman, as she is nearly averaging a double-double, and seems unflappable. Neither is Jeanettee Pohlen, another freshman, who comes off the bench. Sophomore Appel is an oak of a woman, and Harmon is as steady as they come. Roselyn Gold Onwude is coming back from a serious knee injury, but don't ever forget she's from Queens, New York. And the tougher the game gets, the better Candice Wiggins responds.

"Victory is sweetest when you've known defeat." -Malcolm Forbes

12/22/07 - The sell-out crowd rose to their feet, waved their "terrible towels" and roared to greet the Cardinal as they came onto the floor at Maples. Pat Summitt and the rest of the Lady Vols returned to The Farm, amid rumors that this may be Candace Parker's last season in a Tennessee uniform. The Lady Vols had their own young gun, freshman Angie Bjorklund, who just tied Shauna Zolman's Tennessee record for three-pointers the previous week. With the game underway, Stanford committed 12 turnovers in the first half, and allowed Tennessee to gain an 11-point advantage with 2:27 remaining. When the going gets tough, the tough get going, and Stanford took it right back at Tennessee, going on a 5-0 run to close the half. The defense ratcheted up the toughness, getting a pair of steals, a block, and refusing to allow any second chances for Lady Vol shots in those waning minutes.

"If your opponent is of choleric temper, seek to irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant. Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected." - Sun Tzu, Art of War

The second half opened with Stanford starting where they left off: tenacious defense. Tennessee could not drive the lane for baskets. Parker never had an easy shot, as she had Pedersen on her like stink on something smelly. Harmon and Pohlen never let Bjorklund have a clean shot from anywhere. Nicky Anosike's highest stat on her line was five fouls, as she was outrebounded, outscored, and outplayed by Appel. With 14:10 to go in the second half, Stanford took the lead on brilliant high-low pass from Gold-Onwude to Appel, who stepped once to lay it in. With 6:30 remaining, Stanford enjoyed its biggest lead of the night, 53-48. Tennessee and Stanford traded scores, like two boxers furiously exchanging punches, neither yielding nor wavering. With 30 seconds to go, Tennessee cut Stanford's lead of four to two, and both coaches called timeouts to get their players on the same page. Stanford, now up 63-61, inbounded and got the ball to their best player, Wiggins, who was promptly fouled by Anosike, her fifth and last. Wiggins went to the line, with 16 seconds left, to shoot two free throws, therein sealing the win and walking off victorious, having finally beaten the vaunted Tennessee Lady Vols!

"There is no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare." -Sun Tzu, Art of War

Not so fast. I would have bet a paycheck that Wiggins would have made one of two clutch free throws, if not both. Thankfully, that ridiculous bet did not occur, and woefully, Candice Wiggins missed both free throws. Parker drove the length of the court to tie the game with seven seconds remaining, and I just felt a void develop where my stomach used to be. It was happening all over again. All Tennessee needs is just a sliver of hope, a glimmer of light to find their way out from the darkness of defeat. I would never bet against Tennessee in overtime. Thank goodness THAT ridiculous bet did not occur, either

"You can be sure of succeeding in your attacks if you only attack places which are undefended. You can ensure the safety of your defense if you only hold positions that cannot be attacked." -Sun Tzu, Art of War

… or, " 'Roz' is spelled with a 'z' " -Tom Knecht

I think most people root for the underdog, and most people love a comeback story. This is such a story. Rosalyn Gold-Onwude, earned the starting position at point guard her freshman year in 2005-06 and spent all of last year recovering from a severe knee surgery. She has been finding her way back around the court during her minutes this year, and had yet to find her old stride. Perhaps she just wanted to wait until the entire women's basketball universe was watching before making her heroic return. Gold-Onwude owned this overtime. Roz is back! Gold-Onwude collected a rebound off a Wiggins three-point attempt to swish her own three in the open seconds of the extra period, and then got fouled by Tennessee while taking the ball down on the ensuing Stanford possession. She made one of two free throws, and worked the in-out trying to get the ball inside to Appel. When that wasn't working, she took matters into her own hands. Down by one, Gold-Onwude bombed Tennessee for another three, when they failed to cover her on the corner. With Stanford up by two, Wiggins was fouled and sent to the line. Clang goes the iron with a miss. Wiggins laughed it off, as did I, because there is NO way Wiggins will miss four in a row at the foul line. Sure enough, Wiggins sank her free throw to bring Stanford ahead by two with 28 seconds remaining. The nail in the coffin was finally driven in; Appel stole the ball from Bobbitt, and passed it off to Gold-Onwude, who was fouled with five seconds remaining. Walking up to the line, feeling the emotions come over her, yet remaining cool and collected, Gold-Onwude sank both of her free throws to seal the win for Stanford, 73-69. The return of "Roz" was official, with 13 points from Gold-Onwude, nine of them coming in overtime.

"The onrush of a conquering force is like the bursting of pent-up waters into a chasm a thousand fathoms deep." -Sun Tzu, Art of War

As a Stanford Women's basketball fan, I have waited for this moment for a while. Brooke Smith even joined her former teammates on the floor for the celebration, not doubt home for the holidays, but unable to resist missing this annual clash between storied basketball programs and coaches. With my son stretching and straining his head around to take in all the happy Stanford fans making noise, I felt my eyes get moist. I hugged my wife, and high-fived my father, all of us so very happy to see a Stanford women's basketball team not only win a decisive game against the toughest opponent in the land, but to do it with unwavering toughness and confidence.

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