The Two Faces of Stanford

The Cardinal overcame a lackluster first half and seized victory by a deceptively large margin (81-53) over USC by dominating the boards and pushing the tempo. Which reflects Stanford's true self – the sluggish first half or the fierier second?

We are confused dear reader. What do we make of Stanford's effort against USC? The Cardinal won the game 81-53 but in our attempt to get a grip on their performance we feel as lost as the Card often looked in the first half. In their third home game in eight Pac-10 contests thus far, Stanford started the game shooting 1-7. Home was not as sweet as home should be. The ball movement was fine, at least initially, but the Card could not hit the resulting open shots. Then the offense ground to a crawl, turnovers piled up, and Stanford did not look like a team ready to defend their home court vigorously. Stanford did build an 18-3 lead but it took 9 minutes of slogging and some alarmingly inept shooting from the Trojans, who started 0-13, which became 1-19 before they got their offense somewhat together. Fourteen first half turnovers by the Cardinal led to 12 USC points. Stanford was their own worst enemy.

The shaky momentum that the Trojans' horrid start gave the Card was already starting to fade in the first half when junior C Jayne Appel, who had 8 points in the half, picked up her second foul on a very questionable offensive foul call and went to the bench with 8 minutes to go. The Stanford offense, aside from 2 timely and very sweet pull-up jump shots from senior F Jillian Harmon, slunk off the court with Appel. In the next six minutes Stanford scored 4 points. As the first half was winding down, the Trojans were within 5 and Stanford looked bewildered. But then something wonderful happened – Booooooooooothe. Freshman C Sarah Boothe entered the game for the final 2 and a half minutes of the first half and scored 6 points. By then USC was firmly in the game, but the late burst by Boothe allowed the Card to keep their noses in front by 6 points (30-24 at the half) and the crowd to bellow her name in appreciation. They say that laughter is good for the soul. Well so is yelling "Booooooooooothe."

Both teams began the second half with better rhythm on offense. The Trojans danced to a slightly better beat and crept to within 2 after 2 minutes. It appeared that a real fight might be brewing. The crowd stirred restlessly, either from dismay at the score or looking for a vendor selling popcorn. But the mood abruptly changed when sophomore G Jeanette Pohlen stole the ball and found Appel for a transition lay-up. After Pohlen swished a three-pointer moments later and Harmon canned another jump shot, the Stanford lead swelled to 9, and while the margin seesawed a little between 6 and 10 for a few minutes, the complexion of the game had changed. Gone was the tentative team that struggled to get off good shots in their allotted 30 seconds. The new Cardinal personality was much more assertive. They picked up the pace, became more aggressive in transition, and used their superior frontcourt to utterly dominate the glass. Stanford pulled down 62 rebounds to 31 for USC. They even out-rebounded the Trojans under the Stanford basket 24-17. Sophomore F Kayla Pedersen had 13 rebounds and 5 others had at least 5. The Card were not dependent on hoisting up hopeful threes or confused by pressure. They scored 16 points off of USC turnovers in the second half. The USC press proved not to be an obstacle. Almost all of Stanford's 22 turnovers came from forcing the ball in half court sets, mostly in the first half. And with the offense focused on other things, the outside shots started to fall too (4-9 from three-point range in the second half). Stanford's top scorer was Appel with 19, followed by Boothe with 16, and Harmon and Pohlen (5 assists) with 10 apiece. USC got 18 points from senior G Camille LeNoir but nobody else cracked the double-digit mark.

"[USC] is a long team. They get their hands on the ball. Their defense was a little disruptive to us, but I thought we were trying to do things that weren't there," said Stanford Head Coach Tara VanDerveer. "Our pace was the difference for us. We were running."

Added VanDerveer, "We've made a decision that we're going to run. Jeanette's pushing the ball. I thought Ros (Gold-Onwude) did a really good job of pushing the tempo. Early on in the game we had some substitutions, just looking at some people, and we were making too many mistakes. But [USC] is a big team and then we got big. As soon as we could see to make passes, that really helped us a lot. With Jill and Jeanette together I thought they did a good job. And then Sarah coming in and doing so well. We've never really played Jayne and Sarah together that much. That was a good thing. Sarah likes that. Jill can handle the ball. She can help us. We can get into our half-court offense and people have good vision when they're that big."

It was indeed pleasing to see Appel roaming away from her customary center spot when Boothe was in the game and Stanford went to the bigs-on-board 2-3 zone defense. Stanford experimented with some fascinating super-jumbo line-ups in this game. For a while the line-up was 6'4" Jayne Appel, 6'5" Sarah Boothe, 6'4" Kayla Pedersen, 6'1" Jillian Harmon, and 6' Jeanette Pohlen. When they lined up in that zone none of the fans behind that basket could see any of the action on the court. Appel and Boothe worked very well together and since Boothe demonstrated a nice stroke from around the free throw line and converted well on some good passing from Appel, there should be plenty of space for them to coexist on occasion. Even though USC generally shoots well from outside, the jumbo zone defense bothered them enough to keep them at bay. Is this line-up or permutations thereof with freshman F Nneka Ogwumike mixed in among the other trees the wave of the future for Stanford? Ogwumike (8 points and 5 rebounds) may have struggled a bit with her vision due to a protective mask covering her recently broken nose, but she has been a mainstay in the rotation. Boothe certainly made a case for herself with a career-high 16-point day, some cool decisions under pressure, and good defense without fouling. Some credit for Boothe's big day might go to her mother, Rose, who was watching her daughter play in a Stanford uniform for the first time live and whose main concern was not cheering as vociferously as she is wont to do.

"My teammates have really helped me and the coaches have really had patience with me, just getting me to slow down and get comfortable with this game because the offense is completely different than what I ran in high school. I'm getting comfortable with the college game. I think tonight things really clicked together," offered Boothe, who gets some grocery shopping and help decorating her room now that mom is in town for the weekend.

What do we make of the Cardinal as we slide into February and thoughts of March Madness pop into the brain more and more often? Frankly, we are not sure (Actually I am not sure, but we sounds better and when I am wrong I can claim it was a group effort.). I am of two minds about the good and bad aspects of the USC game and what it means for the future. This is the time to settle into form for the stretch run. What is not fixed by February will probably stay broken. Major transformations are now unlikely though there is still time to do some adjusting. The Cardinal are what they are and they showed the two sides to their personality on Thursday. Although they have successfully utilized the three-point explosion method to bury lesser teams, that approach is not consistent enough to lean on every game. And though Appel has been a human wrecking ball inside, shooting 63% for the season and 74% in conference, the Card cannot thrive without some balance (and some way to keep the offense going when Plan A for Appel is neutralized). If they can maintain the personality of the second half, when they pushed tempo, broke the press with little hesitation either by crisp passing or hard dribbling, and used the varied talents of the bigs creatively to generate a balanced attack, they will be an interesting and daunting match-up for anyone. If the team of the first half predominates - the one that too often found it difficult to attack effectively, lost rhythm on offense, and forced things against a dwindling shot clock – everything will be a struggle and big success in March might be elusive. These "personalities" are extremes of course. The Card are not as bad as their worst moments, and since no team is ever always as good as their best moments, we won't fuss over that converse.

Now we stop. We stop worrying about how well Stanford shoots threes, who plays where and when, or what the result of each game might indicate about the chances of success in the next. We've seen Good Card. We know it is in there. We also know that Good Card can be absent for stretches. So be it. We accept the slightly bipolar nature of the Cardinal. We'll calmly wait and see if either side takes control. We will cheer while waiting of course. And we will try to shoo away Bad Card when she emerges. Fortunately there are not many really great teams this season with the exception of the juggernaut that is Connecticut (a team that can make even a handshake line exciting). Good Card can beat people. Good card will out-rebound you by 25, pound you in the paint, run you ragged, and shoot just well enough outside to keep you guessing. Good card executes well as a group, which makes all the shots easier. From here on out we will just holler loudly and hope to see Good Card. We will work on our extra-loud clap and try to say "Booooooooooothe" like a foghorn. We are mellow.

Since we are in a mellow mood, here is a stray thought and a little quiz (answers at bottom).

Is there a player that gets fewer fouls called when she drives to the basket than Jillian Harmon? Harmon is a foul repellent. Every game she drives, gets hammered, bodied, tossed to the floor, and otherwise abused, but the whistle never blows. Typically she gets crushed, falls to the court, and looks up to see the official standing over her signaling for the ball to go over to the other team because she got bounced out of bounds. What gives?

1. What did you think of the "I got the ball!!!!' dance of the happy Cardinal fan who caught a way, way long overthrown pass by USC:

A. I'm rehearsing that move in the mirror now!
B. Save it for when they do the twist contest, guy.
C. Can a fan be called for delay of game?
D. He can catch, but can he shoot?
E. The Stanford men's basketball team needs recruits…
F. All of the above

2. Stanford held USC:

A. To their lowest scoring game of the year.
B. At arms length.
C. To their lowest shooting percentage of the season.
D. To their promise not to step on any of the lines on the court.
E. Underwater.

3. After the game USC Head Coach Mark Trakh said that if he ever stopped coaching women's basketball, he would:

A. Return to teaching.
B. Cry.
C. Coach a men's college team.
D. Go into standup comedy.
E. B and then A.
F. C and then D.
G. A, then B, and then either C or E.

4. USC was not surprised that Sarah Boothe performed so well because:

A. Their coaching staff scouts everyone thoroughly.
B. The reactions of Boothe's mother in the stands made them suspicious.
C. Coach Trakh had seen her practice for USA Basketball last summer.
D. It took them a week of studying tape before they realized Jayne Appel had not dyed her hair brown.
E. Stanford posts are always great.

5. For the next game against UCLA, Stanford will:

A. Practice the press break.
B. Alter the team nail polish color.
C. Give away free tickets to anyone who knows the difference between a bruin and a bear.
D. Refuse to play because two disciples of Tennessee Head Coach Pat Summitt in the Pac-10 is too many and they already played against one at Arizona.

Answers are 1. F, 2. A or C, 3. D, 4. C and E, 5. We assume A but nobody is saying.

For Don Anderson's photo gallery and slideshow from this game, click HERE.

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