Show Down at Pauley Pavilion
Going into the Friday night game against UCLA, number-two-ranked Stanford is a strong favorite. Although playing slightly off against Washington last weekend, the team's post exam-break performance has been at a high level. Unranked UCLA is 6-7 and starts only one experienced player (senior forward Lindsey Pluimer, averaging 13.9 points and 7.5 rebounds this season). But here are five reasons why the result of this game is not a given.
First, UCLA has played its best against its toughest opponents. Against then-#3 Maryland, the Bruins led through much of the game only to succumb to an inspired Maryland rally at the end. Against then number one Tennessee, UCLA played even with the Volunteers, again yielding only to stepped-up performance in the second half.
Second, although inexperienced, UCLA has some very athletic and highly ranked freshmen, including two freshman guards (Doreena Campbell, 9.1 points, 4.2 boards, and 3.75 assists per game - and Darxia Morris, 8.8 points and 3 assists per game), an impressive forward (Nina Earl, 11.2 points with 51% shooting accuracy) and a blossoming center (Regina Rogers, 8.3 points and 5.4 rebounds per game). There is also depth on this team, particularly at the post - which could spell trouble for Stanford's short-handed post rotation. Many of these UCLA players played their best games against the Arizona schools last weekend on the road (UCLA defeated Arizona but lost to ASU by 3 points).
Third, Kathy Olivier's teams play best at Pauley. Over the years, most of Olivier's victories over Stanford have occurred at Pauley. Although Stanford won twice last year, the previous year Stanford fell to UCLA twice, once at Pauley and once in the Pac-10 tournament final in San Jose.
Fourth, Coach Olivier's teams typically feature a high energy, fast paced game that can take full advantage of athleticism and the Bruins relatively deep bench (nine players have averaged thirteen minutes or more per game).
Fifth, UCLA is always highly motivated to knock off Stanford, a motivation likely increased by the Cardinal's #2 ranking. Stanford has shown some vulnerability to losing to good but not great teams on the road (e.g. the game against Utah early this season).
All of the above words were written before I saw the game. I expected to follow them up with a "look-how-Stanford-has-overcome-this-ominous-threat story". Alas, it was not to be.
It rained heavily in the Los Angles basin beginning around noon on Friday. By that evening, there were flash flood warnings - most residents had gone home to tough it out. Pauley Pavilion was unusually empty, given the Bruins' highly-ranked opponent. With roughly 20 percent of the attendees wearing Cardinal red, and the rest of sparse crowd relatively placid, only the Bruin band seemed alive. One did not sense an upset in the making. Stanford controlled the tip and scored the first basket on a drive down the LEFT side of the lane with a two-handed scoop conversion by Rosalyn Gold-Onwude. What an auspicious beginning, I thought. It was to be Onwude's only score, and Stanford's only lead in the game.
The story of this game really is that UCLA played very well as a team from start to finish. There were none of the prototypical Bruin let-downs that have characterized that team's past games. The most important statistic: UCLA shot 42.6% for the game; Stanford shot 29.6%. With rebounds a standoff (and turnovers and steals in relative balance), there was no way Stanford could make up for the shooting deficit. To make matters worse, Stanford shot only 50% from the foul line while UCLA converted on 74% of their charity stripe opportunities.
Another story line: the disparity in offensive contributions by Stanford players. Only five Stanford players scored in this game, and two of those five scored two points each (freshman Kayla Pedersen and Onwude). Candice Wiggins contributed a game-high 29 points; Jayne Appel added 17 points (but with a low shooting percentage and some missed bunnies). After that, Stanford's next highest scorer was JJ Hones with six points (on two threes) off the bench. Particularly missed were contributions from regular contributors Kayla Pedersen (0-8 shooting) and Jillian Harmon (no points on 0-4 shooting). Yet another story line is how well senior forward Lindsey Pluimer and freshman guard Darxia Morris played. Pluimer scored 13 points on 5-7 shooting. Morris had 20 points on 8-13 shooting, including some outside shots that were closely defended. Morris is the real thing and a sure member of the all Pac-10 freshman team. Look forward to watching her at Maples.
Stanford made two notable comeback attempts in this game. After falling to a double-digit-deficit in the first half, Wiggins led the team on a comeback that closed the deficit to four points at half time. A good position to be in against a UCLA team that has folded in the second half against other top teams. But UCLA came out hot in the second half and built the lead back to 16. Stanford did not score a point in the second half until almost five minutes had elapsed. Once again, it was comeback-kid Candice Wiggins who led the rally that closed the lead to seven points later in the half.
But UCLA would not quit. The Bruin conversions reminded GG and me of the UCLA victory over Stanford two years ago, when UCLA's triumvirate of athletic guards could not miss. Give the Bruins credit. They kept Stanford out of rhythm for most of the game. Indeed coach VanDerveer gave that credit, citing the performance of UCLA freshman guard Morris as pivotal. The game was very physical. Candice Wiggins was repeatedly knocked to the floor on drives to the basket. VanDerveer reported that Wiggins was sent to the doctor after the game to check on the impact of a blow to the jaw suffered in the first half. There was no indication that Candice would not be in uniform ready to play the Trojans on Sunday. A tough and very physical loss.
Were there positives to this game? VanDerveer indicated in the post game press conference that the team had suffered a let down in energy. Certainly that was not true of Wiggins, who almost single-handedly brought the team back. One indication of the passion with which Candice played this game: her 10 rebounds against a large and very physical Bruin front court. But the offensive contributions of Wiggins' teammates were wanting.
Relative bright spots were provided by JJ Hones' 2 of 6 conversions on three-point shots and Morgan Clyburn's intense four minutes, featuring solid defense, two rebounds, and a blocked shot. Stanford's tepid 29% three-point shooting was only one percentage point worse than its overall field goal conversion percentage. However, it was not three-point shooting that did in the Cardinal (indeed, UCLA was 0-9 from three point range). Stanford can and will play better. There will be substantial incentive for them to do so against the USC Trojans on Sunday. If they are a Final Four caliber team, they must do so. As for the Bruins, will the same team show up to play California on Sunday? One never knows, but the Bears may have their hands full.
Misc. Game Notes:
UCLA coach Kathy Olivier paid tribute to Coach VanDerveer in the post-game press conference, calling VanDerveer one of the two greatest active coaches in the game (referring also to Pat Summit).
During Stanford's second-half rally attempt, Official Melissa Barlow overruled another official's call of a foul against a UCLA defender, converting it into an offensive foul on Wiggins. Needless to say, the change in call was not warmly received by Stanford fans.
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