If This Game Were a Christmas Present...

If Stanford's 84-49 victory over the UC-Davis Aggies was a gift found under the tree on Christmas morning, it would probably be a pair of new socks – not exciting and not really what you wanted, but at least a little useful and not fruitcake or mittens.

The clouds were so lovely that I almost forgot to watch for cows. As you drive south to Stanford on Interstate 280, often there are cows in the fields. Spotting cows, the more the better, brightens the drive, as do sightings of soaring hawks, rainbows, and all other attractive natural phenomena. One good-sized herd of cows was briefly visible along the way to Stanford's game against UC-Davis on Sunday afternoon and the sky was dotted with a delightful assortment of atmospheric water vapor. Until the last seven minutes or so of basketball action, the ride down was more attractive than the game. Against a very young, much smaller, and injury-depleted UC-Davis team that the Cardinal ought to have been able to crush mercilessly, Stanford spent most of the game tossing up errant threes and relying on their size inside to put back offensive rebounds. They only led by 13 at the half. The Cardinal surely did rebound well (53 total and 23 offensive boards to 27 total and 8 offensive boards for the Aggies) but for most of the game the offense lacked flow unless you consider a sequence of shoot, miss, grab rebound, hit put-back, a form of flow. A game but overmatched team should not be able to force the Card into a relatively unproductive (and unsightly) pattern like that. Probably a few buried threes would have made the offense feel a lot snappier, but the three-point shooting was as frighteningly bad as can be – 4 for 27 (14.8%) until a late shooting splurge by the reserves brought things to an almost respectable 9-36 (25%). Stanford won by 35 points (84-49) but between their own cold shooting and a defense that let the Aggies shoot almost 50% from beyond the arc (11-24), this game was definitely not a sparkling ornament on this year's Christmas tree.

Perhaps this was a game only a coach could love. Coming off a long road trip and the Christmas break, Stanford was working on some of areas of concern the two road losses at Duke and Tennessee had uncovered; maybe beauty was simply improving on what ailed the team on the East Coast. Said Cardinal Head coach Tara VanDerveer, "It's nice to be back home, obviously, to play against a very good Davis team that unfortunately has a couple of injuries. Our team worked really hard on specific things that we wanted them to do, like taking care of the ball. We did a very good job taking care of the basketball." Stanford committed only 8 turnovers and had no trouble with occasional half-court traps by the Aggies.

Continued VanDerveer, "Rebounding was a real key for us. Kayla (Pedersen) did a really good job of getting on the glass. One of the things I don't think we did as well as we wanted was we didn't take away their three-point shot. They hit too many threes on us, but overall, coming off of the break and off the road trip we had, I thought we did very well.

I think every team is a work in progress. Some are just under more extensive construction. Number one, we came into it wanting our point guards to make good decisions, and with the exception of maybe some shots that they took, I thought they made good passing decisions. And then we wanted to rebound better. We did certain things in this game that we need to be doing. But we have a long, long way to go. When you have a team that was on the longest road trip probably that we were ever on with the team, we lose two very close games that are winnable games… As a coach I didn't have to deal with immaturity, which I think says a lot about a team. We're going to get stronger. What kind of doesn't break you will make you stronger and that road trip is going to make us a lot stronger. This game will make us stronger."

"The coaches have been on us since the trip that we need to rebound more and we obviously did that," noted sophomore F Kayla Pedersen. "Jayne (Appel) had 9. We just got second-chance points and easy lay-ups from that. Jayne was 7-8. Nneka (Ogwumike) was 5-5. So if we offensive rebound, we're in good shape."

The Cardinal picked a good time to focus on rebounding. UC-Davis was at a serious height disadvantage. High scorer for the Cardinal was junior C Jayne Appel, who tallied 16 points on 7-8 shooting and 9 rebounds (5 offensive). Pedersen finished with 14 points and 10 boards. Freshman F Nneka Ogwumike added 13 points and one of the highlight plays of the game when she caught a long pass beneath the basket from RS sophomore G Melanie Murphy (4 assists), spun in the air and dropped home the shot without ever touching the floor. Ogwumike does this routinely and somehow manages to stay balanced no matter how she has to contort herself to make the catch, rather like a cat that always lands on its feet, except this cat also has to shoot a basketball before landing. RS sophomore F Michelle Harrison chipped in 13 points (3-5 from three-point range) and 6 rebounds in 15 minutes and was perhaps the key reason that the last 7 minutes of the game were a lot easier on the eye than the first 33. Once Harrison fired in two threes, the lid slid off the basket for the Cardinal; they hit 5 out of their last 9 from beyond the arc. Sophomore G Hannah Donaghe scored 9 points in 9 minutes (2-5 three-pointers).

UC-Davis was led by senior G Genevieve Costello, who sizzled beyond the arc with 5-7 threes. All 8 of their available players scored but nobody other than Costello had more than 7 points for UC-Davis. The Aggies have a long list of injuries and are fielding a very young group at present. Aggie senior F Haylee Donaghe, the older sister of Stanford's Hannah, missed the game due to a knee injury suffered recently. It is uncertain how long she will be out.

"I know this is going to sound crazy but I actually was pleased with some aspects of this afternoon's game," said Aggie Head Coach Sandy Simpson, who was pleased with how his team was able to run their offense. "If I wasn't sitting a few feet to the left of the scorer's table, it would be a beautiful thing to watch Stanford play. They're solid. I really think they're one of probably a half dozen legitimate national title contending teams. Their guard play will be key for them. Their post play is solid. It's very impressive to watch them perform."

UC-Davis tried a variety of sagging defenses, which produced the desired effect of inducing the Cardinal to take and miss all those outside shots. Explained Simpson, "We tried to mix it up a little bit. What we do with our half-court trap is actually very effective against probably 99% of the teams in America. Stanford falls in that other 1%. They're just so big and can look over the top. They pass so well. They have size underneath. We were fortunate tonight. Stanford was a little cool from three-point range. That was a big help to us tonight. The problem was when they missed we couldn't control the ball most of the time. They got so many offensive boards. We just got ‘out-physicaled' by them tonight. But defensively we were trying to mix it up. We played a little bit of 3-2 where we pinched the posts a little bit. We tried to make them shoot from the perimeter. And we played some of our 2-1-2. Playing man-to-man would have been a sign of the head coach's insanity. We didn't go with that tonight."

Said VanDerveer on the Aggies strategy of forcing the Card to shoot and its relative success, "Some teams are going to pick their poison. We play against so many different styles. We play against the Tennessee style or the Arizona State style of everyone extended and climbing on people. Some of it is just our team understanding that some teams are going to play [the way UC-Davis did], and we'll just go through the line-up until we find the person who will knock down the shots for us. And in this case I thought Michelle did a really good job of knocking down shots. Basically that's a gambling-type defense and we haven't seen that for a while.

If there is anyone on our team that wants to play on the perimeter that doesn't come in early and shoot tomorrow, than there's no way I can play them. When I come to the gym and if I don't see somebody in the gym, I can't play them because they don't understand that people are just going to sag off of them."

Stanford now moves into Pac-10 play with Arizona State in Tempe first up on Friday and Arizona in Tucson next on Sunday. Arizona State doesn't do a whole lot of sagging but the Card will need to shoot better than they did against UC-Davis to find success against a versatile and veteran Sun Devil squad. The Cardinal feel they are well prepared to go into hostile territory. "We had a very, very tough schedule and if anything, playing at home at all of those schools definitely helps with the environment and how we play," said Nneka Ogwumike. "It will make us much stronger for the Pac-10 and I'm really excited to see how we can grow and learn from all those games."

VanDerveer agreed that the December road trip to Duke, South Carolina and Tennessee left a lasting and important impression that will aid the Cardinal going forward. "I think what we learned is the teams that are really the top teams are big and they're very physical. We need big, physical bodies that will get right out there and battle. That's what I think stays with us from our road trip," explained VanDerveer. "Bodies are flying and nothing is called on the East Coast. It's a very different style of officiating. But that's what is called in the NCAA tournament. That's what it was at the Tennessee game. I was trying to encourage our officials to let things go, to let the game be more physical. We need to play that way. We really don't call many fouls in practice, do we? [Pedersen and Ogwumike shake their heads in agreement] We don't want people getting hurt but we need to be able to play through things."

The season has reached the nitty-gritty stage where any additional lessons on the road could cost the Cardinal dearly in the Pac-10 standings. The Card have won the regular season Pac-10 title 8 straight times. If they want #9, the hard-won wisdom gained back East needs to pay dividends starting now. There is still plenty of room to grow and learn, but now that needs to happen during wins, not close road losses. Losing on the road to two teams ranked in the Top 10 is no shame. If that road trip really did push the Card toward becoming the team they want to be, they will come home from the desert with a couple of important road wins. Now that would be beautiful.

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