Pinball Wizards

The offense wasn't always pretty and the shots were not rattling in so the Card pounded on the flippers and bounced themselves between UCLA defenders with gusto. The result was a hard-fought 68-51 victory that was beautiful it its own way.

If you were curious enough to google "bruin," you would find that a bruin is just a fancy name for a bear that is often used poetically or archaically. Neither the Stanford Cardinal nor the UCLA Bruins were particularly poetic during Stanford's 68-51 win on Super Bowl Sunday. UCLA has a new coach so archaic doesn't fit. They were archaic last year. Why are they "Bruins" when they could just as well be "Bears"? You wouldn't say "polar bruin" or "grizzly bruin" would you? Maybe we should just call them the Fancy Bears. The UCLA Fancy Bears were reasonably ferocious against Stanford. Their physical defense made the Card miss "easy" shots. But while the Card struggled to knock down shots, they were more than ready to knock down numerous Fancy Bears as the Card's new turbo offense sent Stanford players both big and bigger pinballing through the UCLA defense. Stanford careened over and through the UCLA press and swarmed ahead of defenders in transition. About the time in the second half when a cadre of Stanford bigs outran the entire UCLA team, the new coaching staff at UCLA must have wondered where the Stanford team that relied heavily on the intricate offensive sets went. Weren't the visitors supposed to be the ones pushing the pace?

UCLA has been one of the better rebounding teams in the nation, albeit against a relatively soft schedule. New coach Nikki Caldwell has them pressing, forcing turnovers, and pounding people on defense. The Card won this one by beating the Bruins (OK, we'll cave and call them by their correct name) at their own game (mostly). Stanford did not press, but they did out-rebound UCLA 46-34 (22-14 on the offensive glass), force them into 19 turnovers (against only 13 for Stanford), and wear down the Bruins by pushing the pace. The stout Cardinal defense held UCLA to only 33.3% shooting for the game. The Card even had more steals. Were it not for some hot three-point shooting (8-15) by UCLA mixed with poor shooting from the three-point line (4-16) and the free throw line (10-22) from Stanford, the Card would have run away with this one early.

"This was a really good test for us," said Stanford Head Coach Tara VanDerveer. "Our offense wasn't super on Super Bowl Sunday but our rebounding, especially against a team like this, and our defense really stepped up. Kayla (Pedersen) really helped us with her three-point shooting, knocking down 3 threes. I really liked her at the "3." Jeanette (Pohlen) had an uncharacteristic poor shooting day from both the three-point line (0-7) and the free throw line (0-5). Every time someone missed, Jill (Harmon) went in there and scooped up the rebounds, did a great job on the O boards. We did a good job taking care of the basketball. They really force a lot of turnovers and for us to have 13 turnovers was a really good thing. A lot of young people contributed. Nneka (Ogwumike) came in, got a double-double. She's helping us off the bench really strong. And [Lindy LaRocque's] three was big. This was a great win for us. I wouldn't say it was necessarily a thing of beauty but we showed some grit and did the things we needed to do."

The main pistons driving the Stanford engine were sophomore G Jeanette Pohlen, senior F Jillian Harmon, and sophomore F Kayla Pedersen. Pohlen had a very off shooting night but still scored 10 points on several strong drives, accumulated 6 assists, and most critically pushed the ball hard through the UCLA press or after the Card collected one of their 24 defensive rebounds. The entire team ran the floor well and contributed to the press break but Pohlen's decisiveness with the ball created the climate for the team-wide success. The tone changed dramatically in the few minutes she was not on the floor. The point guard conundrum appears to have been settled (for good this time?).

For a stretch in the first half, after Stanford had fallen in a quick 8-point hole and seemed in danger of digging themselves even deeper, Harmon and Pedersen provided any eager student of the game with a primer on the "little things." Besides scoring they contributed by rebounding, stealing the ball (3 steals in the first half for Pedersen and 2 for Harmon), going aggressively after loose (and semi-loose) balls, and making smart defensive plays. You could write a book detailing what did not get into the stat sheet. Freshman F Nneka Ogwumike also played a big role in keeping the Card in the game in the first half. Ogwumike pulled down 8 rebounds in the first half on her way to her second career double-double (11 points and 10 rebounds). Stanford pulled quickly back into the game after the slow start and led 25-23 at the half. In the second half, Stanford build a moderate lead and maintained it through the final whistle.

Pedersen finished her day with 13 points and 9 rebounds. Lately her three-point shooting has been on the upswing. Against UCLA she hit 3-4. Said Pedersen, "Now at the "3" I think I'm getting more comfortable. At the beginning I'd be playing the "3" position but running in the "4" lane. I've definitely gotten used to it and to taking shots within the flow of the game."

Harmon's energy and knack for being in the right place at the right time doing exactly the right thing made her the player of the game with 17 points, 9 rebounds (7 offensive), 4 assists and 3 steals. Her second half offensive rebounding was remarkable. Perhaps UCLA did not feel the need to box her out from 15 feet away when she was playing on the perimeter. More than once she swept in for rebounds as though everyone else was frozen still in a photograph or a painting and she was the only one free to move.

"I think especially when we play a bigger lineup we might have some size mismatches on other players. Tara always stresses going to the O boards and I think Kayla has done a really good job with that. I was really trying to get on the boards tonight," stated Harmon. "We never want to lose at home. We missed some shots early, had a few turnovers, but we never panicked. We knew we'd start playing well. Some of our shots just weren't falling but people were aggressive and did what we needed to do to get the win."

Regarding Harmon's reputation as a scrappy player, VanDerveer remarked, "I think Jill has been our most consistent player through the Pac-10. She would get my vote as an All-Pac-10 player. [That scrappiness] is Jill's signature. She's a scrappy player, a hustler. If you ask our fans a lot of them will tell you that's what they love about her. She's a fan favorite because of how hard she plays and how scrappy she is. I think it is rubbing off on people. Kayla is a scrappy player too. That's what we need. We need our team to be scrappy and aggressive."

Nobody asked us, but we certainly do agree about Harmon. We love scrappy. We love the attitude that screams, "This rebound is mine, mine, mine! Keep your #(*^!* paws off it!" We also love the one dribble wide-eyed fade away pull-ups, the Kamikaze drives, and the disheveled bun. Why is it that when a player gets to be a senior all the things that you already liked about them get magnified? Improvement certainly but also the sad fact that too often you don't appreciate what you've got until it's (almost) gone.

UCLA Head Coach Nikki Caldwell joined in the chorus of praise for Harmon; "In the scouting report Coach Butts put on there that she is the glue to their team. Her second effort and her board play really stepped up their offensive play. She did a great job of establishing herself in both halves."

Caldwell also credited the overall balance of the Stanford attack. "Stanford has offensive threats. They do a good job balancing their attack offensively. When Jayne (Appel) struggles you then have a Pedersen you can go to or Harmon. They have what I call Batman, Robin, and Batgirl. They have so many different weapons offensively."

We like any coach who compares Stanford players to super heroes, but if you continue the analogy, doesn't that make Caldwell the Joker? What would Caldwell's mentor Pat Summitt think of that?

Speaking of Batman, junior C Jayne Appel stayed Bruce Wayne all afternoon and had one of her least productive offensive days of the season, scoring only 6 points on 3-11 shooting, though she passed well and tied for the team high with 6 assists. The residents of Gotham City would normally be shaking in their boots with the Batmobile stuck in first gear and the outside aerial attack aside from Robin generally frigid. Fortunately good triumphed over evil despite these seemingly fearsome impediments and there was no need for a desperation Bat Signal. Actually it was worth suffering through a rare poor outing by Appel to see how well the Card coped. They got relatively little from Appel and from beyond the three-point arc, missed way too many chippies, and yet still handled a pretty good UCLA team by 17 points. It may have been "ugly" but to these eyes it was still Good Card - we like! We'd like it even better for Appel to don the Bat Suit as usual and all the shots to find the bottom of the net, but against even very good teams we suspect that any two out of three (the gritty rebounding and running of Good Card, Batman dominating, and better shooting from near and far) would bring home the bacon to hungry Gothamites.

"I think this game can really help us. When shots are not falling, we had to do other things," said VanDerveer (who would of course be Alfred). "We're developing our core players. Our big lineup is really helping us and is looking good. I like the fact that Kayla is doing so well at the "3." I like how Jill is playing. I like how Jeanette is playing. Sarah had a very good weekend and Nneka had a big weekend. There are a lot of young players. I don't think this was Jayne's "A" game so it's great how well we did. Last year if Jayne didn't play well we were really up a creek. It's good if she can not have her "A" game and we can do well. I think it's coming together. I feel it is."

"The most important thing is that people are healthy, working hard, and improving. Do I like it that we are in second place? No but I feel like we are improving. Tonight we were getting a lot of really good shots," continued VanDerveer, "They didn't take bad shots. They just weren't going in. What I like to see it that our team, they might be frustrated but they stay with things. They don't tank. That's what Jill and Kayla bring so much – they're mentally though. That was obviously something Candice (Wiggins) did a lot for us (last season). Jayne is too. And Jeanette. I mean who wants to go 3-11 or 0-7 and 0-5? They're mentally tough. Those four, they're bringing other people along. They're bringing Nneka. They're bringing Sarah (Boothe)."

Fans also would be well advised to stay with things and not tank. Find the beauty even in the "ugly" games. This pinballing Good Card has something going.

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

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