Surviving the Hard Knock

Contributing Correspondent Warren Grimes reports from Los Angeles on the Cardinal's 85-74 victory over USC. Since Cal, which had been tied for first with Stanford, fell to UCLA on the same day, Stanford now sits alone at the top of the Pac-10 conference.

The last meeting between Stanford and USC at the Galen Center was at once a highlight in USC coach Mark Trakh's Division I career - the first time he had defeated the Cardinal - and the nadir of Stanford's 2007-2008 season. On that Sunday in early January of 2008, Stanford lost its second in a row in Los Angeles.

This time around, the Galen Center game was on the second to last weekend of the Pac-10 season. A lot was at stake. For USC, the game was a chance to redeem a mediocre season. The Trojans had lost two games to Cal by a total of 4 points, and another to ASU by 3 points. Sunday afternoon was an opportunity to make a claim for the fourth spot in the Pac-10. It was also senior day for point guard Camille LeNoir, who may well be the best in the conference at that position, and Nadia Parker and Brynn Cameron, two other veteran players in the starting rotation. It was LeNoir's three point shot (along with 21 points on 5-7 three point shooting) that gave the Trojans a one point lead that held up for the January 2008 upset victory.

This time, it was Stanford's turn, finishing with an 11-point margin, the same as at Pauley Pavilion two days earlier. The game began with an administrative technical, apparently because USC failed to provide required information at scorer's table. Early on, USC seized the lead – Stanford bounced back and the teams exchanged the lead several times. Although Stanford seemed to gain the advantage beginning midway through the first half, the lead against this hard-fighting USC team was never comfortable. The hardest knock came when Jeanette Pohlen was struck down with 2 minutes left in the first half. Although the action was obscured, a Trojan apparently caught Pohlen with an elbow below the eye. The blow kept Pohlen down for some time, and she had to be helped off the floor. After the game, Coach VanDerveer said her injury was not a concussion, but Pohlen apparently had some blurred vision afterwards. She did not reenter the game.

The rest of the first-half story for Stanford was fouls and freshmen. Stanford's starting posts, Jayne Appel and Kayla Pedersen, both picked up two fouls and were on the bench by the end of the half. Appel sat down after only 5 minutes of playing time. In that time, she managed 6 points, no rebounds, no assists, and 2 turnovers. Pedersen's first half was more "Appeling" - Pedersen played a full 18 minutes and contributed 9 points and 3 boards before the second foul forced her to sit. To the rescue came three of Stanford's freshmen. Nneka Ogwumike was impressive on the inside, picking up 11 points, 5 boards and a block during her 13 minutes. Sarah Boothe contributed 8 points and 2 boards in her 9 minutes. And Lindy LaRocque added two three pointers to the freshmen output. Staggered by the blow to Pohlen, Stanford still entered the locker room with a 41-36 margin.

In the second half, with Pohlen on the bench, Stanford continued to struggle with turnovers (13 more added to the 10 in the first half). USC tied the game at 43, but Stanford regained the momentum. The rebounding and interior passing were there. Stanford finished with a 41 to 26 rebounding advantage. Appel picked up the pace with 20 points on 7-7 shooting. Pedersen equaled that game total and came up with 10 rebounds for a double-double. But this was not an easy victory. Camille LeNoir scored 15 of her game high 17 points in the second half and achieved a career-high 9 assists. USC continued to press and generate turnovers. Although Stanford enjoyed a double digit lead for much of the second half, the Trojans fought on and were able to cut the lead 8 points as the game wound down. It was only in the last minute that Stanford was able to build back and hold the 11 point lead.

Without Pohlen, the fast break was not in synch - the stats list only 2 Stanford fast break points. What was working was Stanford's interior game - among Appel, Pedersen, Ogwumike, and Boothe, Stanford tallied 65 of its 85 points. For the Trojans, Stanford's interior passing and successful conversions must have been demoralizing.

After the game, USC Coach Mark Trakh praised his guards but conceded that it was the interior play of Stanford that made the difference. Trakh said that he was proud of his team's showing against California and Stanford and told the media that "no one wants to play us in the tournament." But Trakh was not the only proud coach. In Coach Tara VanDerveer's words, Stanford had overcome "an interesting challenge without Jeanette." Playing down in Los Angeles against talent-laden teams is never easy, and with point guard Pohlen unable to play in the second half, VanDerveer said other players had to step up. She was proud of Lindy LaRocque's minutes at the point (LaRocque had only 1 turnover along with 3 assists). And Ogwumike and Boothe were, said VanDerveer, "fabulous." "This game made us better" because new people stepped up. VanDerveer also singled out Pedersen's play - saying she would be the team's nominee for Player of the Week.

But VanDerveer would never be satisfied with a team that is building its skills and momentum for end of season tournaments. Her team had won despite 23 turnovers. She singled out for concern the turnovers generated at the post position (Appel had an unusual 7 and Ogwumike had 4). She closed with the observation that a lot would depend on the health of her team and her point guard.

In two conversational encounters with Coach VanDerveer this weekend - the first that I've had - I came away highly impressed --

- impressed that VanDerveer took time to sign autographs for young players, many of them wearing UCLA shirts;
- impressed that, after three decades of coaching, VanDerveer is still passionate about the game and her role in it;
- impressed that she recognizes that she still has things to learn ("still learning" how to do things at Stanford);
- impressed at the genuine concern in her voice and on her face when she heard of Cal player Alexis Gray-Lawson's knee injury during the UCLA game;
- impressed at her candor and lack of guile in answering questions;
- impressed at the care and attention she paid to me and other members of the press.

As I walked away from VanDerveer, I thanked her for her time and attention. Knowing that I was a part-time reporter with a real job, she looked up. "Thank you," she said. "Thank you for your support."

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

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