Cal Gets Iced

Wiggins went wild and Stanford totally dominated Cal to take the Pac-10 Tournament title game 56-35. Don't be deceived by the score. It wasn't that close.

There was ice under the court in HP Pavilion from the covered hockey rink, and there was Ice rampaging all over the court, crushing Cal as surely as a glacier, if much more rapidly. The Cardinal annihilated Cal with stifling defense while Candice Wiggins buried the Bears from inside and outside on offense. Wiggins had the Bears and their hopes for an NCAA #2 seed on very thin ice from the opening tip and kept them frozen on the outside looking in, with no Pac-10 title to call their own this season-they had no chance on Wiggins' watch. Stanford won their fifth Pac-10 tournament title and their 30th game of the season, and did it with aplomb.

The Card gave a rude welcome to the Bears in Cal's first-ever title game, as early three-pointers by Rosalyn Gold-Onwude and Wiggins pushed Stanford to a quick lead. After the Bears snuck a little closer, Wiggins kicked them to the curb by pouring in 13 straight points in roughly 3 minutes to make the score 24-6 with 7 minutes to go in the first half. The game was essentially over and everyone in the building knew it. The Bears simply could not score. They did not hit double digits until 2 minutes to go in the first half. The halftime score was 36-15. Midway through the second half Stanford was up 50-19, and they cruised home by winding the clock and taking the air out of the ball.

Nobody else did much scoring for Stanford other than Wiggins and Kayla Pedersen, who had 13 points, but nobody had to bother. Cal was embarrassingly bad on offense, wretchedly unable to score until the waning moments of the game, when nobody cared much anymore. Cal head coach Joanne Boyle called the game a "debacle." The final score was a pedestrian 56-36, but the difference between the two teams was vast. The Bears' 35 points were their lowest output of the season by 16 (They scored 51 against Rutgers in December.). "They were on," said Boyle. "I was wracking my brain trying to figure out what to do to put us in a position to score and it just didn't happen."

The loss was even more disturbing to the Bears than the thriller they lost at home to the Cardinal in late February. "The one where we lost at home, we were there. For this game, to not even be anywhere in it was a lot tougher for us because we know what we are capable of doing," commented Cal guard Alexis Gray-Lawson. "Today is more disappointing. It's a championship game."

Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer was proud of her team, especially the intense defensive effort and the offensive brilliance of Wiggins. Said VanDerveer, "Our depth helped us because we were more rested. We were the aggressor today, I thought. This is a little different, playing three games in three days. [The Bears] are going to have a great run in the NCAA tournament, and we want them to and wish them the best of luck. For our team, Candice just put this team on her back. There were times in the Oregon State and UCLA games where we had big leads and she could rest, but she knew that today was the day she needed to play well, and she got it going. She was just awesome. We had four things we wanted to concentrate on. One was really making sure that [Cal posts] Devanei Hampton and Ashley Walker didn't get going on us like they did over at Cal. We needed to rebound and I thought we rebounded much better. We needed to execute better offensively and we had some really nice sets, really nice plays. We wanted to run the floor and take advantage of our rest. JJ Hones had a great tournament and played a great game for us. She was a real key to our team success today."

The Cardinal completely shut down Hampton and Walker, two of the best posts in the country. Hampton had 5 points on 2-15 shooting, and got so frustrated by the constant Cardinal double-teams that she picked up several offensive fouls trying to bull her way through them. Walker was a non-factor, with 2 points on 1-6 shooting. The Bear guards fared little better. Tough defense led by the efforts of Ros Gold-Onwude kept them in check. Nobody scored more than 6 points for Cal. The Stanford duo of center Jayne Appel and forward Kayla Pedersen did a superlative job defending the paint with frequent help from the guards and excellent relief work from junior Morgan Clyburn. Appel, who had 14 rebounds and 4 blocked shots, quietly smashed the tournament record for blocks (8 by Kristen Newlin in 2004) by piling up 12 in her three tournament games. Offered Appel, "We had a few different tactics that we were looking to use, so we just never left Devanei alone, one on one. She's a good player and to play her one on one is very difficult, so we constantly had two people coming or on the way or already there."

Added VanDerveer, "This whole tournament has been about us stepping up defensively. Ros takes playing defense personally. Kayla did a great job yesterday on [UCLA all-conference forward] Pluimer. Kayla is really intelligent. She did a great job on Ashley Walker. Ros was on Alexis Gray-Lawson. They're both great players. As Jayne indicated, she was guarding Hampton and she had help, but that was the plan. We didn't want [guards Lauren] Greif, Kelsey Adrian, or [Natasha] Vital to get hot outside, and they didn't."

"Most players have tendencies and our players and our coaches, they just could not watch any more video. They were just like please, no more, but they know inside and out what I call favorite moves. They could tell you every single thing their player likes to do. They could tell you exactly what our game plan was and they executed it to a ‘T.' What we were able to do to Cal was basically take away the things that they like and then make them beat us doing something different. But they didn't."

Stanford has a built-in advantage if they need to do something different. VanDerveer explained, "For our team, if they double Jayne, Ros hits a shot or JJ hits a shot. Candice is not one-dimensional. She hits a three. She takes it to the rim. She passes it off the backboard to Jayne. She has a lot of that versatility to her game so you can't just say, ‘Make her go left or make her go right.' And Kayla has versatility. She scores on the block. They take that away. She steps out. And that versatility is what maybe makes it harder to scout us. Scouting is huge."

Cal certainly didn't contain Wiggins, who burst out with scoring binges like she was a soda can somebody shook. You might say Cal tried to gently pop the top, but got sprayed in the face instead. Wiggins hit 5-11 three-point shots and attacked the basket with a vengeance for many of the rest of her 30 total points. She finished 12-23 with 4 rebounds and 3 steals. The conference Player of the Year did not need to stay in the flow of the game; she made her own flow. For her efforts, Wiggins was named Most Outstanding Player of the tournament. Appel, Pedersen, Hampton, Dymond Simon of Arizona State, and Taylor Lilley of Oregon joined Wiggins on the All-Tournament Team.

Wiggins rebounded from a poor shooting day against UCLA on Sunday in the semi-finals. "The best thing about shooting is just having confidence. Actually Tara spoke to me before the game and said some nice things and really got me relaxed and very confident," explained Wiggins.

"The thing about Candice is the bigger the game, the better she plays. She is surrounded by teammates who, if she struggles, they pick her up, and she picks them up too. She's done some phenomenal things in her four years at Stanford," said VanDerveer. "What I told Candice before the game was that I just think she's the greatest player to play in the Pac-10 and no matter what happens tonight, that's not going to change my opinion. Just go out and have fun. If that helped her, great. I'm going to have to think of something else to say for the [NCAA] tournament. I've got to think of something for Jayne and Kayla too…"

We can all hope VanDerveer has a way with words in the coming month. Her words do seem to be resonating with Kayla Pedersen, who started slowly against Cal, but picked up her scoring after a little chat with her coach. "I take pride in my defense. I really wanted to stop Ashley Walker and help out Jayne with Devanei, but I got off to a slow start," explained Pedersen. "Tara talked to me, talked me through it, and I came out and my teammates had my back and after those first five minutes, I got it going."

And what did VanDerveer say? "Just that I can make layups. I'm really capable of doing that," answered Pedersen with a laugh.

Offered VanDerveer, "What I told Kayla was, ‘You're a big time player and big time players make shots. When you're going in there, we need you to finish.' Kayla, I can get right up in her face. I need someone sometimes that I can express some of my frustration with some other things that might be happening on the court and Kayla sometimes…listens to me. We're not in this position without Kayla. She is tough. She is smart. She makes shots and she can even make more. I just think she is fabulous. She responds to challenges and we just try to present her with challenges that we have."

One major challenge for the Cardinal is no longer an issue. It has become very clear lately how much the guard spots have evolved over the course of the season, to the benefit of the players involved and the team as a whole. JJ Hones has blossomed after shaking off the lingering effects of her lengthy rehab from ACL surgery to solidify her position as Stanford's floor general. It is no coincidence that Hones logged the heaviest minutes of any Cardinal during the Pac-10 tournament. The offensive execution is noticeably better with Hones running the show. Though she never quite found her shooting range in the cavernous HP Pavilion, Hones' three-point shooting has become a critical component of the Stanford attack. Hones at the point has allowed Ros Gold-Onwude to take on the role of perimeter defensive stopper, and Gold-Onwude has done so with relish. This may be the most intense, focused Gold-Onwude yet seen in a Stanford uniform. Unrelenting defensive pressure and all-out hustle after rebounds and loose balls have characterized Gold-Onwude's play of late. Her new role suits her and the three-guard lineup with both Hones and Gold-Onwude starting has advantages. The Cardinal have more outside shooting on the court, and with forward Jillian Harmon more available to shore up the relatively thin post ranks, foul trouble is not such a pressing worry. With Morgan Clyburn providing ever-improving post relief and guard Jeanette Pohlen ramping up her already high-energy efforts, the Card have a very solid eight player rotation for the NCAAs.

"With both Ros and JJ coming off ACL injuries, it takes some time and early in the season, a lot of the time, neither one of them was our point guard. Against Utah and even against Rutgers, it was Melanie Murphy," said VanDerveer. "Mel did a great job for us. Then obviously she went down. So when we struggled in January on the road, that was right when Ros and JJ were coming into their own. It was maybe two weeks after that, playing Oregon and Oregon State, that they were kind of getting more confident and having better roles defined. Right now I really like our three-guard lineup. Obviously it's been out of necessity because Jill got hurt but it's helping our team with three excellent ball-handlers and passers out there."

VanDerveer is happy but not satisfied with the team's readiness for the upcoming NCAA tournament. "I'm very excited about the good things we're doing and I'm very proud of our team, but I think it is my job also not to think there's not more we can do. Quite honestly, to really go far in the tournament we have to be a great post team. We have to go inside and finish and rebound. We need to finish better."

The Card definitively finished off Cal. For a championship game, that was as bad a beat down as it gets, an utterly humiliating crusher of a defeat. Nobody should mention a Battle of the Bay or a new equality any time soon. In truth, there was never any battle, only Cardinal dominance. Cal had three shots and whiffed badly, the last time the worst of all.

Now it is on to the NCAA tournament for these two teams seemingly headed in opposite directions. Stanford, which appeared out of contention for a #1 seed, now has a real chance at that fourth #1 seed, almost certainly in the Spokane Regional, where they would just as surely end up should they be tabbed as a top #2 seed. Somebody has to go west, and the Card are already here. Cal, which only a few short weeks ago was looking at possibly grabbing a #2 seed, now might be lucky to hang on to a #3 seed. Losing that ugly on national television can do that to a team.

Is Stanford a #1 seed? Candice Wiggins thinks so. "I think that we've shown we've had a great season. We've done things that a lot of other teams haven't done. We've done a lot this year that we haven't done in years past to deserve a #1 seed. We did have a bad weekend in LA, but we showed where we are now. We played UCLA yesterday and showed how much we've improved over the season. I think this is a #1 seed, but that's my own biased opinion."

It is our biased opinion too.

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