Shuffle Up and Deal

Stanford had to overcome a furious late-game comeback by the Arizona Wildcats to prevail 70-67. The Cardinal had a seemingly comfortable lead and maybe for just a moment began looking ahead to the showdown for the Pac-10 title with surging Arizona State on Saturday.

Even a maniac can catch a hand. If you play any poker you almost certainly have run into certain players often referred to as "maniacs," who bet, raise, and push to the limit with cards that generally don't warrant such tactics. Maniacs often do not have much of a hand. This means you can play back hard with holdings that you might not normally care to push so strongly. But beware - even maniacs get good cards now and again; even a maniac can truly have a good hand. And just as a maniac might take all your cash with surprise aces in the hole, a team at the bottom of the Pac-10, such as the eighth-place Arizona squad that tiptoed into Maples Pavilion as the ostensible warm-up act to the Saturday showdown with Arizona State, can spring unexpectedly superior play on an unwary or insufficiently energetic opponent. Woe be it to the opponent who assumes any team with an ugly record will fold easily. The Arizona Wildcats (now 4-13 in the Pac-10 and 11-17 overall) may not have flipped up a winning hand at showdown when the Cardinal showed 70 to their 67, but the Wildcats surely did play their cards well enough to throw a good scare into Stanford.

Though the Cardinal were not overlooking the Wildcats, who played the Card not quite close in Tucson in January, they may have started looking ahead to Saturday a few minutes too early. Stanford started out reasonably well and shot over 50% in the first half, but 9 turnovers and a desultory defensive effort that allowed Arizona to score too often in the paint resulted in only a 6-point halftime lead for the Cardinal. Possibly the Card were wary of the wildly inconsistent officiating they have encountered throughout the Pac-10 season; at times they did not contest shots as vigorously as they might have, especially inside.

The second half opened with more of the same. We'd like to say more of the same, only better, but it wasn't really. Stanford puttered along with a 7 to 10 point lead without shaking free of the Wildcats, who often had their way inside with sophomore F Ify Ibekwe (17 points and 13 rebounds) and senior F Amina Njonkou (13 points on 6-8 shooting) finding and hitting open shots much too easily. In contrast, Stanford struggled to get the ball to junior C Jayne Appel (9 points on 4-8 shooting and 11 rebounds), who was immediately double-teamed or even triple-teamed when she did get the ball. Arizona scored more in the paint than did Stanford (32–26), which usually is the team better able to score inside. Though on the year the Wildcats only shoot around 36% and less than 30% from three-point range, on the day they shot 47.5% and made 5 out of 9 three-pointers. Arizona guards Reiko Thomas (14 points) and Courtney Clements (16 points) were hot from outside in the second half. Stanford countered with a career-high 21 points from sophomore G Jeanette Pohlen (5-8 from beyond the arc, 6 boards, and 5 assists) and 16 points from sophomore F Kayla Pedersen (2-4 from three-point range, 6 rebounds). Senior G Jillian Harmon added 9 points and 6 assists. Freshman F Nneka Ogwumike contributed 8 points including one jaw-dropping catch, spin in the air, and shoot that drew an audible and well-deserved "wow" from the crowd.

With 7 minutes remaining in the contest, Stanford was up by 14 and ready to hit the cruise control switch. Perhaps they started to relax just a little, playing at home where they have not lost this season and with a bigger game looming in less than 48 hours. The Wildcats were not ready to throw in the towel, however. Aided by several poor Cardinal possessions in a row, Arizona went on a 13-0 run. The Wildcats pulled to within 1 point on a steal and lay-up. Though they did cough up a few turnovers in that Wildcat run, the Card gathered themselves and did not cough up a hairball in the closing minute. In a key play, Appel put back a Harmon miss to give the Card a 3-point lead. After a missed Arizona layup and a missed Stanford free throw in a one-and-one situation, Pedersen made a key block on Ibekwe and grabbed the ball with 16 seconds left, forcing the Wildcats to foul. Stanford hit enough of their free throws (barely) to stay in control of the game, though one more long Wildcat three added a little drama to the final seconds.

There Will Be Quotes:

Arizona Head Coach Niya Butts

"We set really good screens on the ball and we looked to attack whether from an open shot or attacking the basket. I'm very proud of the way our team executed the game plan."

"If we played like that every game and if I as a coach knew the answer to [playing that well every game], we'd be at the top of the Pac-10. But unfortunately sometimes it doesn't happen that way. Tonight we came out with very, very good energy and we were able to put some things in play."

Stanford Head Coach Tara VanDerveer

"Arizona came out and played a great game. When we had them down they didn't quit, which would have been nice. I would have liked it if we put them away. I think this is the closest home game we've had this year. They really have some great athletes. Ibekwe played really well. Njonkou played really well. We really struggled defending their inside game. Part of the reason is they had some really good perimeter shooters. Clements and Thomas can both knock down threes, so you have to stay out on their three-point shooters and kind of pick your poison.

For our team, Kayla getting in foul trouble hurt us early but then she came out and did a really nice job in the second half. Jayne rebounded for us. I thought we could have scored better than we did and we turned the ball over too much. Our turnovers hurt us as much as anything. It would have been nice if we could have made more free throws."

"Arizona has really improved a lot. We played Arizona and Arizona State early. [Arizona] has a new coach and they're learning a new system. I think they're playing really well. They use their personnel really well. This is what we need in the Pac-10."

"I think the thing about a team like Arizona…what place are they in the league? (Eighth place) They come in here and if… We're the team for the most part that is playing consistently every game. To me, if you're that good than you shouldn't be in eighth place. They played really, really well. But to play really well consistently is not easy. Ask Cal, you know? (Cal had just lost to Arizona State) It's tough to come out and for Jayne, Kayla, and Jeanette to have the target on their backs. Tonight was a tough game but people stayed with things really well. You didn't see anybody falling apart. We did make some mistakes but we pulled out a win."

Stanford G Jeanette Pohlen on hitting a career-high 5 three-pointers

"Jayne gets a lot of attention and if they are going to double her, she's probably one of our best passers on the team. She knows she's getting doubled and they were leaving us for extra passes. And when they were in the zone we had a lot of open looks with extra passes. When I was open I shot it. I was feeling it tonight for sure. None of that happens if they don't double Jayne."

Stanford F Kayla Pedersen on her increased scoring of late

"I don't think I'm doing anything different. I'm more aggressive and I think that the shots are just falling now. Jayne is getting triple-teamed. They leaving me wide open."

Stanford C Jayne Appel on her night and whether the close game helped or hurt the team in their preparation for tournament time

"I don't think I played very well in the entire game. I made the shot when it counted a lot (to put Stanford up by 3 with under a minute to play). I had an off night but my teammates really played well the entire game when I had a lot of turnovers and struggled inside."

"Tara told me they were going to double right away so I knew that was coming but we haven't had a double that big. I don't think they doubled as hard when we played them before. They've gotten better since we played them at Arizona. It's tough to make a pass when they're 6'7" and 6'5" and can jump out of the gym. Something to work on, definitely."

"I would hate to be winning right now by 45 or any large margin. I don't know, I think we play better when we're uncomfortable."

Can we make them uncomfortable before the games so the other team doesn't have to do it? Voodoo dolls? The new locker room is a tent in the Galvez Parking lot? With their touchy-feely defense (lots of hands everywhere) and waves of fresh legs every 2.5 minutes, Arizona State is just the type of team that can make an opponent very uncomfortable. We will see on Saturday if the discomfort of a very dangerous and motivated opponent leads to good play.

Because now it gets serious. Every game matters and any loss has fairly serious consequences. OK, maybe the Pac-10 tournament is not the be all and end all, but now is not the time to shrug off any lackluster effort even in a tournament the conference should not be having after an 18-game round-robin regular season (but we won't get into that now). Against Arizona the Cardinal did not have the energy and focus they must have from here on out, the intensity they had in the second half against Cal for instance. They have not been altogether sharp on offense for a while now, consistently turning the ball over way too much, or on defense for the past couple of games against USC and now Arizona. This lack of intensity or sharpness or whatever you choose to call it may mean nothing or may be an indication that things are not coming together as well as hoped. We will know much more by Saturday afternoon.

The Arizona State game on Saturday is an interesting litmus test for the Cardinal. Stanford has clinched a share of the Pac-10 regular season title and the #1 seed in the Pac-10 tournament. By beating the Sun Devils, Stanford can claim the title all to themselves and if they play well, which they should as the favorite at home, it will show that they clean up well when it counts, that their issues with slow starts, lapses in intensity, and unforced errors were merely the sort of temporary glitches that can crop up over a long season. On the other hand if they can't muster monster energy and sharp focus in a game for the Pac-10 title on Senior Day, VanDerveer has got some serious problems to solve.

Stanford peaked at just the right time last year and all involved claimed a big reason was that the players loved playing together. This season, watching Stanford slog through games against Oregon and Arizona at home and fight to overcome turnovers on the road against the LA schools, it doesn't always seem like that same sense of loving to play together is there. Rather than joyfully dominating they seem to be fighting themselves a little bit, struggling to keep the energy level up, the turnovers down, and the shots falling. This is not to imply that they are not enjoying playing, but rather to note that finding the sweet spot or the elusive "flow" has been difficult. Going 16-1 in the Pac-10 is no small achievement, but the team has not consistently played as well as they must to be successful in March. They've gritted things out. They've played tough. But they have not often soared. And it is March already, if not Madness just yet. If the group-wide, focused effort needed to win a string of games in the NCAA tournament is in this team, we should start seeing signs of it right about now. So get the defense cranked up, tighten up the passing, stay aggressive, and don't wait until the second half to get going (please?). The Arizona State game should bring out the best the Card can offer. Time to put the cards on the table, if you will. What hand is Stanford holding?

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


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