Senior Hugs and Silver Linings

The Cardinal got blistering shooting from a trio of guards as they beat Arizona State soundly, 79-57. Candice Wiggins led the way on Senior Day with 23 points. Rosalyn Gold-Onwude and Jayne Appel added 17 points apiece while JJ Hones chipped in 11 points.

Dreams and reality collided on Saturday afternoon in Maples Pavilion, where the Stanford Cardinal trounced the Arizona State Sun Devils 79-57. The Cardinal shooting was dreamy, as was the 22-point margin of victory, which was the largest in years for the Card over this particularly tenacious opponent, but the bittersweet reality of Senior Day goodbyes tinged the occasion. Stanford does host the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament, but that is an NCAA event, not a Stanford event, and home will not quite be home again. The crowd won't be the same cheering maniacs (or polite clappers) in their usual places. The feel of the place will be not so subtly altered. There may be games left at home, but the last true home game is done. We hope "Think Pink" raised a boatload of money for breast cancer research, but all the pink, including one gentleman in a pink tutu and a rather tall fellow wearing a shocking pink shower cap, made the game atmosphere a bit surreal. Candice Wiggins is leaving the house and we're all decked out in funny pink outfits? Maybe this isn't really happening. Shouldn't we get a do-over in cardinal?

Of course, nobody would want a mulligan on the beautifully played win. The shots were hitting home at a furious pace for both the Cardinal and the Sun Devils. Both teams finished the game shooting over 50% overall and from three-point range. The Cardinal pulled away for a blowout win because they took 12 more shots than did the Sun Devils. It seems odd to claim strong defense when the other guy shoots 51%, but an excellent defensive effort, especially in the second half, is exactly what drove the Cardinal to victory. Stanford forced the Sun Devils into 22 turnovers (10 steals) and several shot clock violations. When Arizona State found a sliver of an opening, they were sinking their shots, so the Card made the good looks scarce. Said Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer, "I thought our team played a great game. Arizona State is a really tough team. We had to play well to be successful. Our defense really stepped up. In the beginning, we got run on a little bit and they got some O boards, but in the second half, we did a really good job rebounding and defending in transition."

The Sun Devils got strong play from sophomore guard Dymond Simon (13 points and 3-6 from three-point range) and junior posts Lauren Lacey (11 points and 3-3 from beyond the arc) and Sybil Dosty (5-6 for 10 points plus 6 rebounds). "We definitely weren't as good as we wanted to be, but man, Stanford was really good. We may have had to be flawless today defensively to shut them down. [At the end of the game] we didn't have a chance to win. We've never been in that situation this year. We've not been blown out," said Arizona State head coach Charli Turner-Thorne. "If Stanford shoots like that, I don't know anybody that can beat them."

To no one's surprise, senior guard Candice Wiggins led Stanford with 23 points on 8-14 shooting even though she met with some foul trouble in the first half and had to sit for 7 minutes. Wiggins also had 5 steals. Center Jayne Appel had a dominant day, scoring 17 points on 8-14 shooting and imposing herself on the ASU posts. There were not many rebounds to be had with all the hot shooting, but Appel collected 9 of them. She was deadly on the offensive boards, where she relentlessly piled up the points by capturing the few stray Cardinal shots and putting them where they belonged. Appel, who has taken her passing to new levels in the last month or so, also led the Cardinal with 6 assists. Her best pass, or at least the most eye opening, was a low, backward flip to Wiggins, who was cutting to the hoop. Wiggins could not quite control the ball for the finish, so no assist for Appel, but that was almost the play of the day. Another potential play of the day was a nifty crossover and lay-up from guard Jeanette Pohlen, who contributed several aggressive forays to the hoop with good results. If she did not make the shot, Appel was lurking to clean things up. Guard Ros Gold-Onwude had a sensational shooting day, going 5-6 from beyond the three-point line and totaling 17 points, her career high. Guard JJ Hones rounded out the double-digit scorers with 11 points. Senior guard Cissy Pierce made her last shot in a Pac-10 game at Maples Pavilion a good one, swishing a long jumper late in the second half.

Tara VanDerveer was particularly pleased with the attitude and improved play of Gold-Onwude, who responded well after being dropped from the starting line-up several weeks ago when JJ Hones claimed the starting point guard position. "Personally I thought this was Ros' best game at Stanford. She was really poised. She took care of the ball. She played great defense, worked very hard. [ASU guard] Briann January is a tremendous player. [Gold-Onwude] knocked down shots. It wasn't challenging enough so Ros had to bank one in too," said VanDerveer. Gold-Onwude might be queen of the great banked shot. She's made 3 or 4 memorable banked three-pointers. It is a good knack to possess.

This game provided the silver lining to the dark cloud of the Cardinal doing without starting forward Jillian Harmon for a few weeks. The Card did much more than simply make do without their hustle player; they thrived on the perimeter in new and exciting ways. Stanford started three guards, Wiggins, Hones, and Gold-Onwude. Against a Sun Devil defense that can stick like glue, the Cardinal guards hit 11-19 three-point shots. Wiggins went 2-5 from beyond the arc. Hones popped in 3 triples at a 60% rate. Gold-Onwude's 5 three-pointers in 6 attempts were the most of her career. The Cardinal guard trio proved to be a fine counter to the Sun Devils' three-guard setup. "We've won a lot of games without shooting the ball really well. I think I can probably count on one hand the number of times we've hit over 50% this year. What I like about Ros' situation or Candice's situation is that they're putting in extra time for things they know we need to work on, watching extra video, getting in the gym and knocking down shots," commented VanDerveer. The Card need Harmon back, but the changes forced by her absence may see her return to a stronger, deeper team. The three-guard line-up worked well, and could be a very viable option if the Cardinal feel the need for some extra perimeter firepower or smaller, quicker perimeter defenders.

"We've been really focused on shooting these past couple of practices, especially when players like Candice and Jayne draw so much attention, our post players draw a lot of attention. They draw my defense and they kick it out, and I've got to be ready to knock it down," offered Gold-Onwude. "I've been working on that."

"We're all good shooters," opined Wiggins. "We shoot every day. We get together and have each other's backs, always encouraging [each other]. We've been having a shooting slump throughout the season, but we know we're great shooters. We're starting to change. It's starting to get contagious. We're gaining momentum with that."

Is it surprising that the Cardinal's shooting may be coming around just in the nick of time? Maybe not, because the "Infamous LA Collapse" had far-reaching consequences that are still pinging off the gym walls today. "We dug ourselves a hole, but we're really working hard to dig ourselves out," said VanDerveer. "Each game for us is for the Pac-10 championship because if we lose one, we know we'll be out of it. We don't have any cushion. I think, quite honestly, that it's helped us focus and will help us for the NCAA tournament, because that's how that is. Each game is to move on. Our team has internalized that in a good way. We understand what the consequences are when we don't play well. We were able to learn that lesson in early January, and since then everyone has worked harder. We've practiced harder. There's more at stake, but it's been good."

It's been more than just good to watch seniors Cissy Pierce and Candice Wiggins play their four seasons at Stanford. Even though they could have as many as 12 more games to play, now is as good a time as any for a farewell in writing. Soon it will be all about the team and whether they can win one more game, and then one more game, and then one more game. Any goodbye then will be to the team and the season, and there won't be much time to consider the individual endings until well after all the hubbub dies away.

Pierce maybe did not hit the heights of stardom commensurate with her impressive athletic gifts, but it has always been a hoot to watch "Air Pierce" take flight. Pierce almost floats above the fray, loping and gliding, occasionally pausing for a moment to elevate effortlessly and let fly a high arcing shot or float on up to the basket from well beyond the reach of pesky earth-bound defenders who never even noticed her slip by them so quickly in transition. Repeat after me, "No one is faster than Cissy." Playing human pinball in the mosh pit as is allowed these days never really seemed to suit her. I recall one moment early in her career when Pierce glided in for a seemingly easy lay-up and a late-arriving defender collided with her and sent her bouncing off sharply, like a billiard ball sent flying off at an angle by a crisply struck cue ball. When you are that high, you can bounce a long way. There was no foul, of course. Pierce had her best season her junior year, when she started a number of games and was a key perimeter defender. There is time left for continued significant contributions from this cerebral senior. "Air Pierce" plays on some higher plane that only she can reach. It has been a pleasure to watch her fly.

This senior day was the day Stanford partisans have been dreading, the day that not even Tara VanDerveer could forestall with her "Candice is not a senior" mantra. She hasn't said that lately, even in jest. It is no joke, anymore. There have been many fantastic and beloved players to wear cardinal. The Stanford record books boast All-Americans galore and honors aplenty. Candice Wiggins sits at the very top of the list. Few players at Stanford, or anywhere else, have combined such talent and drive. Everyone loves to root for the scrappy underdog who is maybe not so athletically gifted, but who works incredibly hard and makes the most of her gifts. In Wiggins, we got a supremely talented player who makes the most of her abilities and plays with the heart and intensity usually reserved for the scrappiest of underdogs. When you add to the mix the sheer joy with which she plays and the leadership she displays with teammates for whom she obviously cares deeply and who just as obviously return the feeling, you get a little miracle.

All too soon Wiggins' school records and Pac-10 records will be final, and Stanford fans will be very happy or sad about the Cardinal's NCAA experience. For the moment, we still get the joyful anticipation of what might be and the thrill of watching the kind of player who just doesn't come around very often. I have a hunch that we have not seen the best yet, either of Wiggins or the Cardinal. That may be saying a lot considering some of the triumphs that have already made this a special season, but the Card are still growing as a team, problem areas such as shooting are breaking positively, and Wiggins no longer seems to be fighting herself a little, struggling with senior urgency as she had been earlier in the season. Maybe like her fans, she has given up trying to stop the clock. All good things must come to an end, right? I've never figured out why, since bad things don't get the same injunction, but that is the deal, like it or not. This good thing is ending, but thankfully, and maybe with a little luck, which a team needs in the NCAA tournament, not just yet. We get to keep Wiggins around for a little longer.

Even though some possibly misguided soul gave me license to ramble here, I am simply a fan. And although I get emotionally invested in the Cardinal each year and find myself attached to the players for whom I have been cheering my silly head off, I have discovered that I am not nostalgic. I tape games, but I rarely ever watch those recordings. I do enjoy following former Cardinal players. I keep my eye on the Sacramento Monarchs to see how Nicole Powell is doing, and I keep up with the careers of those who are playing overseas. I have found, however, that while I am always sad when seniors leave, I never really miss them much. When the next season starts and I am in my seat in Section 4, I never think, "The team looks strange without so-and-so. I really wish she were out there." It is always about now, who is out there now, what are the issues now. I don't wish for the past, not when the present is before my eyes. No matter how good the player was or how much I enjoyed her game, I don't wish her back or feel her absence as the next season begins. For instance, I dearly loved watching Brooke Smith spin those hook shots, and felt rather sad that I'd probably never see one spinning into the basket in front of my eyes again, but I knew as she left that while a hook might cross my mind occasionally, it would not be while I was sitting in Maples watching the Cardinal play, unless Smith herself happened to be on the premises. I thought I'd miss Powell, who I very much enjoyed watching. I didn't. I'm sad when players go, but honestly, I've never missed a one, and I have learned to expect not to miss them. We all know that sad departures are part of the natural cycle of college athletics. Part of what makes the college game great is the ephemeral nature of a college team. Players come and go. Chances are fleeting. My internal fan clock resets each fall as the team is renewed. This Senior Day I'm not so sure of myself. I can't know until I sit in my seat sometime next October or November and look out at next season's edition of the Cardinal, but I think even with all the excitement over the new possibilities, I will sit there and for the first time ever, keep feeling that something just isn't right, that someone is missing. Yeah, I think I'm really going to miss Candice Wiggins. Somehow I doubt I'll be the only one.

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