Double-Downer

Once again overcoming his personal disappointment in a dismal result, Contributing Correspondent Warren Grimes reports in on the Stanford Women's Basketball team's head-shaking loss last Sunday at the hands of the hot-shooting Trojans of USC. A demoralizing 3-20 effort from behind the arc doomed the Cardinal, which otherwise played rather well and should bounce back against the Oregon schools.

Pre-Game Reflections:

    As an undergrad, I had a special aversion to USC, or, as a fellow Bootie calls it - "_._._." Cal was, then and now, our chief rival. Still, the Voldemort of Pac-10 schools, the "it-that-shall-not-be-named school" was, as seen through my undergrad eyes, a football factory, a party school, a place to go if you could not get in elsewhere (as long as your parents could afford it). 

    Some things haven't changed. Trojan U. is still a football factory. But a lot of other things are different. Today, one would have to say that USC is more similar to Stanford than any other Pac-10 school. Here's why. USC and Stanford are the only private institutions in the Pac-10. Each has a relatively small undergraduate population (in the order of 6,500) and internationally known graduate programs. The two schools' entering freshmen classes have credentials that exceed other Pac-10 schools. Yes, USC has now surpassed UCLA and Cal with its entering class credentials. The entry requirements for recruited athletes remain "flexible" at USC - at least far more so than Stanford - but this should not obscure the overall record that USC has established. 

    When it comes to women's basketball, there are more parallels. USC and Stanford are the only Pac-10 schools to win an NCAA championship (UCLA won during the pre-NCAA era). USC has not fared as well as Stanford in the last two decades, but the Trojans under Mark Trakh have made the NCAA tournament most years and, in the last couple of years, have had some remarkably strong recruiting successes, probably second only to Stanford. Two years ago, USC signed the number one high school player - Jacki Gemelos. Consider Nneka Ogwumike, the highly-sought Texas forward who had USC on her list (for Nneka, by the way, the LA-based private institution apparently held strong attraction, with private schools such as Duke, Notre Dame, and Baylor also on her list). It is not an accident that USC was in the running, and we are fortunate that Nneka chose Stanford. Alas, another WBB parallel is not a happy one for either team. Both USC and Stanford have been hit hard by injuries, including the dreaded ACL. For USC, the record is particularly bleak, with Gemelos yet to play a game for the Trojans (out the first year with an ACL tear and the second year with a renewed tear). Stephanie Gilbreath, another five-star perimeter recruit, is also out this year with an ACL tear. Finally, there are parallels to be found in the coaching styles - both coaches work hard to prepare their teams, but are relatively undemonstrative during the games. Coach Trakh has yet to show that his teams can win a Pac-10 championship, but this may change when more of USC's highly touted recruits are able to play. 

    So, what is the pregame prognosis? A Stanford victory is far from assured, particularly after the lackluster overall performance against UCLA. USC has an all Pac-10 candidate at the post - Nadia Parker, averaging just under 12 points a game. And the Trojans have a number of three-point shooters, led by Camile LeNoir (19 threes at a .352 clip) and Brynn Cameron (19 threes at a .302 clip). USC's outside shooting, like Stanford's, has been inconsistent. While strong, the USC post game is unlikely to be pivotal in this contest. The game may be decided by who can hit the outside shots.

Alas, these pregame words prove once again all too prescient.

The Game:

    For the first time in this writer's memory, Stanford is swept on a Southern California visit. Unlike the UCLA game, Stanford played with energy and some balance on Sunday afternoon. In fact, Stanford played even or better than USC in every category, except two:  perimeter- and free throw-shooting. Stanford out-boarded the Trojans by a 38 to 23 margin. The USC defeat was especially hard to take because it appeared likely that Stanford would win this game. Against UCLA, as the clock wound down under five minutes, it became increasingly obvious that UCLA would prevail. Not so on Sunday against USC. In the last few minutes, Stanford built up a five-point lead and appeared on the verge of taking control of the contest. But outside shooting brought the Trojans back. Stanford still had a one-point lead under 40 seconds when USC wound down the game clock and Camille LeNoir converted on her two-pointer to give USC the final margin. But not without a final opportunity for Candice Wiggins, who drove down the court with under ten seconds on the game clock. Guarded by Allison Jaskowiak and (it seemed) most of the rest of her teammates, Wiggins was unable to convert on a last-second shot in the lane. LeNoir, back from an injury last season and still limited to 25 minutes a game, was a difference-maker. In addition to the game-winner, she hit a three-point shot to start the scoring and went on to hit four more three-pointers. 

    Perimeter shooting was absolutely crucial for this first-ever Mark Trakh-coached victory over Stanford for USC. In last year's matchups, USC three-point attempts consistently clanked off the rim. Not so on Sunday. The Trojans converted an impressive11-19 from beyond the arc, the best this season for a USC team that has shot inconsistently. In fact, USC was better from three-point range (58%) than they were from the free throw line (57%) or from closer in (47% conversion rate). LeNoir went 5-7 from three-point range, but a number of other teammates joined in the barrage (Aarika Hughes was 2-2 and Australian Heather Oliver was 2-3 in threes). Stanford sophomore Jayne Appel had a phenomenal game, going 10-14 with 11 boards, but she missed the first of two free throws that could have given Stanford a two-point lead with about 40 seconds on the clock. From three-point range, Stanford was a disappointing 3-20 (Wiggins 1-8 and Hones 1-5). From the charity stripe, Stanford shot only 11-20 (55%). In a game this tight, one more long-range conversion or two more free throws could have made the difference. 

    It should not be said that Stanford did not learn from the UCLA loss. Stanford was in this game throughout and appeared to be pulling away with a five-point lead with only minutes on the clock. Players that struggled in the UCLA game made significant offensive contributions. Kayla Pedersen had 14 points and 8 boards. Jillian Harmon had 7 points and 7 boards. Rosalyn Gold-Onwude had five points, three assists, and only one turnover. JJ Hones started the game, played 28 minutes, and had 7 points, 3 assists and no turnovers, but converted on only 2 of 7 shots. The perimeter shooting was bad (15 percent rate), but overall shooting (thanks to Jayne Appel's effectiveness) was at a 44 percent mark - much improved on the UCLA game. 

    A few thoughts about Candice Wiggins. Despite an off shooting game, her leadership was inspirational to this team. In the post-game press conference, Candice appeared somewhat subdued (for CW that is). Her chin was still bandaged from the UCLA game, but she reported feeling fine. After Candice's superhuman effort against the Bruins, it is not surprising that her timing was off a bit in this game. She still managed to make a buzzer-beating three-pointer to tie the game at halftime, but that was her only three-point conversion. The lesson here is that the team has to step up and provide more support - Candice cannot do it alone. 

    So why did Stanford lose this game? Coach Mark Trakh said after the game that the team with the last full possession was destined to win. The Trojans could not stop Jayne Appel, and Stanford could not stop USC's outside shooting. Stanford's abbreviated last possession (under ten seconds) wasn't enough to pull the game out. Coach VanDerveer cited poor perimeter- and free throw-shooting, and a few defensive lapses, as pivotal in the game. 

    In the post game comments, Coach Trakh (like Coach Olivier two days earlier) was extremely complementary of Tara VanDerveer, whom he described as running the benchmark program for everyone in the conference. Trakh was emphatic in saying that this was his best win ever ("number one"). He also thought this win would give USC a strong chance to make the NCAA tournament. USC players attending the press conference (Camille LeNoir, Nadia Parker, and Allison Jaskowiak) were understandably ecstatic. 

    Are USC and UCLA for real? The answer is yes, with qualifications. USC is not a true threat to win the conference. The team rebounds poorly (Coach Trakh said that "everyone out rebounds us") and relies too heavily on outside shooting. Perimeter shooting often suffers in road games, so I expect USC will have a tough time winning away from home. Against Stanford, USC made a superb effort and deserved the victory. If they can maintain this intensity, they will surprise some other teams. As for UCLA, they came close to upsetting California. The Bruins are a team with which to be reckoned. They have balance in the inside and outside game. Drexia Morris, who played so well against Stanford and also against Cal, was injured near the end of the Cal game. Morris collided with a Cal defender on a drive to the basket and injured her knee (the same knee with a previous ACL tear). UCLA's future performance will likely depend on consistency (the Bruins' bugaboo) and Morris' status. 

    What does all of this portend for the Cardinal? Stanford must continue to be Stanford. The Wiggins and Appel response to these two hard losses was just what one would expect of a Tara VanDerveer-coached team. When asked about the future, Wiggins and Appel both affirmed that they will be back in the gym this week, working to improve. Stanford is still the same team that came down to Los Angeles with a #2 national ranking. Perimeter-shooting and free throw-shooting were issues before this weekend, and they obviously still are. Stanford is a humbled but still very good team. At this point, rankings should not be the issue for the coach or the team. The focus should be on improving and winning the Pac-10, a much more difficult task now that California has swept the Southern California series.


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