Pac-10 – Again!

It was Senior Day for Morgan Clyburn and Jillian Harmon and the Cardinal were in no mood to be sharing a title. Riding big days by Jayne Appel and Jeanette Pohlen and a strong rebounding effort, Stanford topped Arizona State 77-68 to claim their ninth straight Pac-10 title.

Dang, that went fast – the Pac-10 season, the careers of the Stanford seniors. Maybe the slippage of time was an illusion; with the Pac-10 tournament no longer in San Jose and the first rounds of the NCAA tournament not in Maples Pavilion this year, the home season seemed to end more abruptly than usual. Fast or not, the conference regular season unquestionably did end well - the Cardinal played a strong all-around game to defeat the feisty Arizona State Sun Devils 77-68 and claim their ninth straight Pac-10 title.

The ultra-experienced Sun Devils have 6 seniors and 4 juniors on the roster. Coach Charli Turner-Thorne's team plays aggressive defense, shoots well, and starts a pair of quick, exciting guards, junior point guard Dymond Simon and senior defensive pest Briann January, who shoots almost 50% from three-point range and was named Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year in 2007-08.

After walloping Cal on Thursday for the upset and their fifteenth win in a row, the Devils were amped to take down the Cardinal and claim a share of the conference crown. Unfortunately for the Sun Devils, on this Senior Day Stanford was not in the mood to play nice and share. Arizona State ran into a brick wall in Card junior C Jayne Appel, who scored 10 of Stanford's first 17 points on her way to a season-high 29 points (which could have been close to 40 if a few wayward bunnies had darted into the hole) and sophomore G Jeanette Pohlen, who scored 13 points in the first half and totaled 19 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists for the game. Appel's 10 rebounds gave her the double-double and her 2 blocks added to the Stanford career record for blocked shots that she set against Arizona on Thursday. In her last game at Maples Pavilion Senior F Jillian Harmon hustled her way to 7 points, 10 rebounds (6 offensive), 4 assists and a steal. Freshman F Nneka Ogwumike added 9 points for the Card and sophomore F Kayla Pedersen contributed crazy eights (8 points and 8 rebounds). With 19 points, half on free throws, January was the star for the Sun Devils, who lost Dymond Simon to an apparent ACL tear in the first half when she landed awkwardly after getting a shot blocked.

This last 2008-09 contest at Maples Pavilion started out with plenty of offense by both teams. Stanford jumped to a 10-point lead midway through the first half, but the Sun Devils stuck with the Cardinal, mostly by staying even in the rebounding battle. The Stanford halftime lead was only 6 points. The key to the second half, during which both teams shot close to 50%, was the Cardinal hitting the glass hard. Stanford out-rebounded Arizona State by 13 after the break and limited the Devils to only one second-half offensive board while hauling in 11 of their own. "Tara (VanDerveer) told us before the game that we have to rebound in order to win this game. We reminded ourselves of that right before halftime. We made it our #1 priority," noted Appel. "As much as I don't like to say it, I told Jill before the game that I was playing it for her. I wasn't going to let Jill down and lose on her last game at Maples."

Stanford held a 16-point lead at the 8-minute mark and a 12-point edge with 2 minutes to play. Some nice work in desperation time by Arizona State and a few missed free throws by Stanford (what else is new?) created just a hint of drama in the waning moments, but there was no real danger and the 9-point final margin was a fair indication of how the game went. Towards the end of the game, "I felt confident but not comfortable," acknowledged Harmon. "They have the firepower to come back and we just kept saying one stop at a time and take good shots. I think we did a really good job of just staying up on them and not giving them too much confidence at the end."

"[Winning the title outright] was extremely important," added Harmon. "It was already shared but we don't want to share anything with anyone else. More importantly we want to be playing well heading into the tournament. I think it gave us momentum today."

Said Stanford Head Coach Tara VanDerveer, "The first thing I want to say is we're really happy to finish out on Senior Day, our last game, playing a great team – Arizona State – and winning the championship, not sharing it. We're generous, but we didn't want to do that. The second thing, or actually even the first thing, is I'm really sorry to see a player go down and I said that to Charli after the game. The injury to Dymond Simon I hope is not what we always think it is when someone goes down. She's a terrific player. They have an outstanding team. Personally I think Charli does a fabulous job. This might be one of her very best teams ever.

Having said that I'm really proud of our team – to come out and handle their defensive pressure. We got the ball to Jayne and Jayne delivered. Jayne got a double-double. She really put our team on her back. Jeanette also just had a great game, ran our team offense, really got it going. And Jill stepping up for a senior game - I just felt confident that Jill was not going to allow another team to come in here on her last game as a senior, playing so well at Stanford. I congratulate Jill on a great career at Stanford. Overall this is how we wanted to finish. It was a battle and we're really excited that we won the championship."

By handling the best that the Sun Devils could throw at them, Stanford not only put a resounding capper on the Pac-10 regular season, they proved that the minor nits that had been creeping into their play (turnovers primarily) are indeed minor – not totally insignificant, but not necessarily an impediment against good teams. The Cardinal turned the ball over 16 times and probably could have easily cut that to 11 or 12 even in the face of the Sun Devil pressure. VanDerveer was not inclined to pick at the effort. "They are disruptive with their defense. If you were to say to me, you can have either 43 rebounds and 16 turnovers or fewer turnovers and fewer rebounds, I would take what we got," explained VanDerveer. "It's a credit to their aggressiveness. They do play a lot of people and get out in passing lanes well and that's their thing. We could have done a better job of taking care of the ball but I'm pleased with what we did. It's a great win for our team and I'm not going to nitpick about some turnovers. We'll look and if we play them again, we'll have to make some adjustments."

This was Senior Day so the celebration was of both the title and of the careers of seniors Morgan Clyburn and Jillian Harmon. My memory is not always so reliable but I do remember when I first saw the two of them play as incoming freshmen. It was at the Bay Area Pro Am in San Francisco the summer before their frosh season. Now the Pro Am is not the place to go for intelligent basketball. Generally one sees very little defense, a whole lot of turnovers, and many bad shots. It is a chucker's delight. But the Pro Am affords fans an opportunity to check out the local college talent and maybe spy a few Stanford players and get a feel for their games. We brave souls went because rumor had it we might see the newbies, Clyburn and Harmon. And yes, there they were, looking surprised to see a number of Stanford fans there to watch what is basically a pick-up game with refs.

Clyburn surprised us that summer with her long range shooting ability. What did not surprise us was that like many freshmen, she had a little work to do to make herself a contributor at Stanford. It has been a pleasure to root her on as she did just that. Despite struggling with bad feet throughout her career, Clyburn carved herself a role in the post rotation and ultimately made key contributions last season as Stanford reached their first Final Four team in what felt like forever. Clyburn never got big minutes but when called upon, she came through in the clutch. The more desperately Clyburn was needed the better she played. One of my favorite "Morgan Moments" was when she emphatically stuffed Devanei Hampton of Cal during a hard-fought Stanford victory last season. Since we did not get to cheer for Clyburn on the court this year, perhaps a request instead would not be out of line? Clyburn is a Biomedical Engineering major interested in designing artificial hearts. Hearts are important, but might Clyburn also consider developing an artificial ACL that won't snap? We would never ask, except we really think she could do it.

The consensus first impression of Harmon was that she had a very mature game and would play a lot and soon. We amateur scouts may be wrong often, but we were not wrong then. Harmon was not flashy then and while she is very capable of making the "wow" play, she really isn't now. She is simply supremely competent at basically everything, one of those rare players who is always doing the right thing with the maximum hustle. Toward the end the Arizona State game, when Harmon launched a longish jump shot, it flashed through my mind that if there were any justice, that shot would go in for her. It didn't. But maybe it was truer justice that Harmon's last home game did not feature a big offensive output – she had a solid 7 points - and that particular shot did not hit the bottom of the net. Maybe the better tribute was eyeballing the box score after the game and realizing she had quietly accumulated 10 rebounds (6 offensive), 4 assists, 1 steal, and only 1 turnover – how typical. Harmon has been called "the glue" of this Stanford team. She has also been dubbed "Jill the Thrill" by teammates. If you combine the two you get the truth – Harmon makes glue thrilling (No, that is not like watching paint dry). If you appreciate a player who can reliably break a press and also get you the most critical offensive rebounds of the game, here is "The Thrill" for you. With Harmon the numbers lie – they give hints but don't tell the whole story. She will be missed.

We can hope that Harmon gets to be the "stickum" for exactly one more month, until the national championship game in St. Louis on April seventh. The polls and rankings have been a jumble this season. Connecticut sits comfortably (and a little superciliously) above a large pack of teams that all seem capable of beating one another on any given day. Exactly where Stanford fits is unclear. The Cardinal have only lost to top teams (Tennessee still counts despite their current injury problems and uninspired play) on the road. They have many good wins but because they lost those marquee games on the East Coast in December, they do not have the eye catching victories that some other teams sport. Stanford is also one of the very few teams that have no bad losses. Right now to these eyes, Stanford looks like a very long shot #1 seed/highly probable #2 seed should they win out or a probable #2 seed/possible #3 seed should they drop a game in the Pac-10 tournament next week. One intriguing thought is that late as it is, the Cardinal have not peaked yet.

Said Appel, "I don't even think that when we were celebrating on the court…it didn't even feel like we were done. We're still hungry. We want more than just the season championship. We want the tournament championship. We want the national championship. We're still working every day."

Offered Pohlen, "We just want to keep improving. I know Tara keeps saying we haven't peaked yet, which is good. Hopefully during this Pac-10 tournament we can keep improving so that by the time we peak it's going to be the national championship game and we're playing our best basketball of the year towards the tournament."

We like the sound of that and considering all the experimenting the coaches have had to do and the youth of the team, it is very possible that the Stanford team we see at the Pac-10 tournament in one week, in the first rounds of the NCAA tournament in two weeks and again (we hope but we never take for granted) in three weeks is appreciably better than the Pac-10 champs of today. Just as long as they do not leave the peaking too late - the NCAAs do not wait.

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


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