Where is Bill Murray When You Need Him?
The Stanford Cardinal did not experience opening night jitters during their 68-55 home victory over the Minnesota Golden Gophers Friday night, at least not when they ran onto the court for the first moments of the new season. They barreled to a 17-6 lead in the first 7 minutes and seemed poised to chase the Gophers back down the gopher hole early. But then the sweet opening notes subsided, to be replaced by the tweeting from the officials that eventually sent four Card starters to the bench with two fouls apiece. After an early Minnesota time-out, the shoving in the paint picked up in intensity, and the Card strained to score 10 points in the remaining 13 minutes of the half, which ended with Stanford leading 27-17. Most of the Cardinal's scoring freeze was self-inflicted. Lay-ups went clanking off the rim and a variety of good-looking shots skipped away without touching any twine. The Card could have put the Gophers away and started the season with an easy win, but they let an experienced team hang around and had to pay the price in sweat and bruises in the second half. "It felt a little bit like a heavyweight fight out there," said Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer. "I thought we battled really well. We did not schedule an easy first game. Minnesota is a very experienced and well-coached team. We learned a lot about our team. This is the first game and we've got a lot of work to do." Even normally reliable senior F Jillian Harmon, who had an excellent overall game with 7 points, 6 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 blocks and 2 steals, had trouble finishing those lay-ups. VanDerveer summed up the essence of Stanford's troubles on offense, "We missed a lot of easy shots. People were just trying too hard." Some of the difficulty Stanford faced executing their offense was due to the absence of junior point guard JJ Hones, who missed the game with a stress reaction in her right foot. According to VanDerveer, Hones caught her injury very early and should return in 2-4 weeks. Without Hones, Stanford played an entirely new guard line-up with Jeanette Pohlen, who played almost no point guard last season, at the point and RS junior Rosalyn Gold-Onwude taking over at the "2" for gone but not forgotten Candice Wiggins, who waved happily from a courtside seat to a standing ovation midway through the first half. Although Pohlen did an excellent job running the offense and finished with 9 points on 4-7 shooting, including one amazing falling, sliding drive, the offense was not always polished, especially when Pohlen sat down. The outside attack was also not in tune until late in the game. Stanford was 0-7 from beyond the arc, all in the first half, before Gold-Onwude (2) and Pohlen (1) hit threes late in the game to make the long-range tally a more respectable 3-10. "The thing our team has had to adjust to in the last week is playing without JJ," said VanDerveer. "Hopefully this will be something that will help us in the long run but in the short run it's painful. We're used to JJ running the point for us 80% of the time. Jeanette never even played the point last year and stepped up [tonight] and did a great job." Junior center Jayne Appel, who had some uncharacteristic misses late in the game but finished with 14 points (5-12), 9 boards, 2 steals, and 5 blocks (which seemed really more like 8), noted the physical nature of the game, which featured an inordinate amount of heavy pushing in the paint. Sometimes Appel's various defenders tried so hard to root her out of her favorite spots that they resembled stranded motorists trying to push-start a stalled car. Said Appel, "It was a battle the whole night, inside and outside, running down the court, we were getting hit every time, we were hitting them every time. It showed part of our team colors that we did tough it out and we did come out with a win after playing such a physical game and not shooting well, not playing to the best of our abilities, which I don't think we did." Minnesota coach Pam Borton was happy with the way her Gophers competed. Said Borton, "Give a lot of credit to Stanford. They made big plays down the stretch in the last 3 and a half minutes of the game. They did a great job with their post game. Obviously Appel inside is a handful and I thought our kids did a great job against her. It was the other post players that I though hurt us inside, not so much Appel tonight." Added Borton, "This is how we play. This is our team. We like to play aggressive. We like to play physical." Minnesota's 2008 All-Big Ten First Team selection and All-American candidate Emily Fox is a champion cup stacker in her spare time. The basket in Maples Pavilion must have looked as small to Fox as one of those cups; she was 2-11 for only 6 points, well below her 2007-08 average of 17.2 ppg. Guard Katie Ohm led the Gophers with 15 points, all but 2 scored in the second half, when she drained 3 three-point shots. Center Zoe Harper added 12 points. After both teams struggled to score in the first half, adjustments gave both offenses new life. Minnesota shot 47.1% in the second half and knocked home 4-7 threes. Stanford shot 45.8% for the game and a blistering 57.7% in the second half. In the first half they were only at 36.4% even with the hot start. Sophomore Kayla Pedersen, who finished with 14 points to tie for high scorer with Appel, topped the rebounding column with 12. Freshman guard Nneka Ogwumike had a solid debut, adding 11 points on 5-6 shooting. Ogwumike's evening was tantalizing in that she made several spectacular plays including one steal and easy lay-in, but she also struggled with fouls that limited her playing time to 16 minutes and committed three turnovers. Ogwumike's potential is awesome. Take note of the few freshman miscues and smile - they won't be around long. Ogwumike will be routinely amazing after a little seasoning. One word everyone uses to describe the Cardinal is deep. Against Minnesota that vaunted depth was not totally evident. Foul trouble to 4 starters brought in the subs in the first half, but 4 starters played over 30 minutes for the game and the fifth clocked 28 minutes. Appel played 37 minutes and Pedersen 35 minutes even though Sarah Boothe played 9 solid minutes in the first half (0-2 but 5 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 block, and no personal fouls) and Michelle Harrison, who earned much praise from VanDerveer for the second game in a row, was very productive in her 4 first half minutes (1-1 for two points on a nice fade-away jump shot, 2 rebounds, and 1 steal). Explained VanDerveer, "Right now, from my perspective, we're playing a really solid front line rotation with Jayne, Kayla, and Nneka. I'm very excited about how Michelle is coming along and we can play her at the "4" and at the "3." When someone has been out for a year and I haven't coached them, some of it is I'm not going to play them in the second half of a close game – I just don't know what they can do yet. Nneka had 2, actually 3, freshman mistakes down the stretch, but she did so many really good things. We need people really stepping up defensively. That would be the first thing to be able to help our team - they've got to play great defense. And without JJ right now, just being able to help us run our offense. I think Mel (Murphy) can help us more. I think Ros can help us more. I'm really excited about how Jeanette is doing and when JJ comes back we'll be so much better, just due to the stability she gives our team. We run things just a whole lot differently. We were able to play different people and look at different people early but we are not ever going to be a what I call ‘deli basketball,' where you get to take a number and go in and keep rotating in and out. I'm not comfortable with that." Where the Cardinal go with their potential depth is an interesting and crucial question that is also a bit of a Catch-22. Players need to do well in games to show they are able to contribute but with such a tough schedule, will the coaches be confident enough to give them the necessary chances? Against Minnesota the results were mixed. Many got to play but only 6 players carried most of the load. Regarding how the Cardinal should profit from their depth this season, Kayla Pedersen said, "The other teams, if they are 7 players deep, we're just going to run them into the ground because they are going to get tired before we are. We can just keep subbing people in. I think that is a crucial part for this year." We agree with Pedersen. The Cardinal need to be aggressive – running more, resting starters, and utilizing as many players as they can this season. Hey, if you've got it, flaunt it. It may be asking a little much for that sort of substitution pattern in the first game against a good team when Stanford is attempting to adjust to losing a 4-time All American and then their starting point guard, but if Appel and Pedersen are playing 35+ minutes in too many games this season, something has gone awry. One thing that has certainly not gone awry is the Cardinal's mental toughness when things are not going smoothly. This wasn't a pretty game and Stanford did not take the easy route to victory, but when Minnesota would chip into that 10-point Cardinal lead in the second half, Stanford had an immediate answer every time and the Gophers could never seriously threaten. If this game is any indication, the mental toughness that was the Stanford stock in trade last season remains. This is a very, very good thing. If they can weather whatever minor storms surround them as they adjust and grow in this early portion of the season, a formidable unit will once again be forged. Weeks ago, a fairly wise person remarked to me when I asked how the team looked that it was always stunning to him how flawed they appeared in early practices and games each season; he could never shake the memories of the hard-earned precision from the previous season and had to remind himself that the team of game 30 will be vastly different from the team of game 1, or 3, or 7. So don't think Maryland or the second Connecticut game when gazing on the Cardinal these days. Think Utah or the first Connecticut game instead. A little patience and perspective go a long way. Final Four basketball won't happen in November. For Don Anderson's photo gallery and slideshow from this game, click HERE.
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