An Unselfish Team Restores Order

Contributing Correspondent Warren Grimes reports from Los Angeles on Stanford's 89-64 blowout victory over the USC Trojans in the Pac-10 tournament final on Sunday.

Stanford has been in a post-season mode of late – firing on all cylinders. But there was chaos in the Pac-10 universe, most of it caused by an unranked USC team that had played inspired – if occasionally flawed – basketball. The Trojans defeated two nationally ranked teams on Friday and Saturday, and the possibility that they could do so again – on their home basketball floor – could not be dismissed. After all, they had played Stanford very tough two weeks ago in the same arena. But with two hard fought close squeakers on consecutive nights, and virtually no post presence, would USC still have its shooting legs?

The Stanford crowd was there – I'd say in roughly equal numbers to the USC crowd. That's really a shame given that this was USC's home facility. Melissa Barlow was there, ready with the whistle for more national TV time. Kari LaPlante, a 6 foot 5 center who had barely been on the radar screen, opened for USC with a couple of baskets on interior moves – were the Trojans, who seemed intent on drawing fouls on Jayne Appel, really going to pull this off? Meanwhile, Stanford was 1-6 in the first 4 minutes, but still up 5-4 thanks to three free throws from Kayla Pedersen. Then Jeanette Pohlen hit a three. It was 8-4 with a time out at 14:59. Appel had her first foul and sat. Jillian Harmon got a put back and then a three, and it was 14-6 with just under 13 minutes left in the half.

At the ten-minute mark, it was 16-8, with both teams shooting an unremarkable 33%. Rosalyn Gold-Onwude came in and, picking up from Saturday, hit her first three. But at 9:11, Appel picked up foul number 2 and sat. Neither team was looking in synch. Nneka Ogwumike converted off a nice feed from Gold-Onwude, and it was 21-8 at 7:41. At 5:56, Gold-Onwude hit a jumper; it was now 25-10. Stanford seemed to be pulling away with hard defense and persistence, if not flair. But USC began a 14-4 run to close to 29-24 at 1:10. In the last 70 seconds, Stanford fought back: Harmon converted a two and, with 6.6 seconds remaining, Jeanette Pohlen, took the inbound pass from the sidelines. She had to cover 70% of the court – and that's what she did, with a determined dribble drive through the trees for a lay up. It was 33-24 at the half.

The game wasn't over yet, but USC's prospects were dimming. Camille LeNoir had no points in 6 attempts, due in significant part to Jillian Harmon's stifling defense (LeNoir gave credit after the game to Stanford's interior players "clogging" the lane). LaPlante was playing surprisingly well at the post – she had 10 points on 4-5 shooting. In the paint, USC had almost as many points (10) as Stanford (14). USC's perimeter game, however, had yet to show and, at the end of the half, they were shooting only 40%. Stanford had a 43% shooting half, with Pedersen getting 9, and Pohlen and Harmon each 7. As one might expect, the rebounding advantage was with Stanford, 21-14.

Stanford opened the second half with its starting lineup. In the first minutes, it was clear that Stanford was going inside with renewed determination. Appel and Ogwumike both converted. Pedersen hit a base line jumper – and it was 42-28 with 17 minutes left. The scoring pace heated up, and it was 49-33 with 15:20 on the clock. A strange play occurred when Harmon knocked the ball away from a Trojan perimeter player and chased it toward the Stanford basket, in the process sideswiping and temporarily disabling a referee (no, it wasn't Melissa Barlow). When the ball rolled out of bounds, it was awarded to the Trojans (a referee is considered part of the court's fixtures). But by then, Stanford's interior game was in high gear. Stanford had a 57-37 lead with 12:05 on the clock after Appel converted 2 free throws. Stanford finally had found its offensive rhythm, and it was soon 67-38 off a three-pointer by Lindy La Rocque and two free throws by Ogwumike. Stanford kept pushing the tempo, and at 8:40 the lead was 72-38.

By then, it was clear that this would be another blowout victory for Stanford in a Pac-10 final, not unlike what happened a year ago at San Jose. USC wasn't giving up, but they appeared overmatched and tired. Such blowouts stir a mixture of thoughts. On the one hand, it is a remarkable achievement for Stanford. Tara VanDerveer is a master at getting her players to perform with intensity in end-season games. At the same time, it may not be good for the Pac-10 conference and for development of a wider base of interest in women's basketball. The answer – I like to think -- is not for Stanford to play down, but for others to play up – easier said than done. But I give credit to Charli Turner Thorne of Arizona State and Joanne Boyle of Cal for openly aspiring to this goal – and making great strides toward reaching it.

Meanwhile, in the midst of writing this sideline rant, Kayla Pedersen was lighting it up and approaching a career game. She ended up with 25 points, 16 of them in the second half, with two long range threes. Pedersen was taken out at the 5-minute mark, just one rebound short of a double-double. Soon thereafter, there were no starters left on the floor – Sarah Boothe scored, and it was 83-50 with 3:45 left on the clock. USC still had its starters in until the last 30 seconds and fought to narrow the margin, which was 25 points at the end (89-64). The Stanford substitutes were still playing with aplomb and intensity.

The only question left was who would get the outstanding player of the tournament award. Mary Murphy did a post-game interview with Jillian Harmon – would she be the choice? Would it be Jayne Appel? Or Nneka Ogwumike? Actually, it was none of the above. Harmon and Ogwumike were chosen for the all conference team and Kayla Pedersen got the nod as the Most Outstanding Player. No one would have predicted this after Pedersen's 0 points the previous night, but Pedersen's 25 points is the second highest ever for a tournament end game (Candice Wiggins had 30 points in last year's title game). Pedersen's 15 rebounds during the Arizona game also set a Stanford high for this tournament. Kayla Pedersen played with intensity and drive throughout the tournament, and peaked during the title game (shooting 56%).

Stanford set a number of other records for a title game: most points scored (surpassing UCLA's 85 against Stanford in the title game three years ago); most rebounds (48); most field goals (35) and field goal percent (.493). Stanford has now appeared in all 8 of the State Farm Tournament finals, and won 6 of them.

The difficulty in choosing which Stanford players to honor is a positive reflection of the balance of this Stanford team. Leadership by committee, the goal that Tara VanDerveer aspired to earlier this season, has come to pass. It makes Stanford a better team. The unselfish nature of Stanford's diversified offense (inextricably linked to its defense) is remarkable.

Take Jayne Appel. Appel wins my nomination for most unselfish player. When the announcement was made that Kayla Pedersen won the most-outstanding player award, Appel was beaming and enthusiastically applauding. Throughout this tournament, Appel was doubled. She didn't put up big numbers, but she was a leader on the floor. I have this wonderful retained image of a double-teamed Appel finding a seam to make the interior pass to Ogwumike for an easy lay up. That happened more than once. In the end game, Appel had 12 points, 4 assists, and 6 boards in18 minutes.

Take Nneka Ogwumike. She scored more points than any other Stanford player in this tournament (44), ten more than second place finisher Pedersen. Watching this game at floor level, Ogwumike's magical leaps are a thing to behold. The chap sitting next to me at the press table was in awe – and declared firmly that she was a future Olympian. Ogwumike has learned her role, and has blossomed splendidly. At Saturday night's press conference, Ogwumike basked in the laudatory comments and questions, then looked over at Jayne Appel – "I learned from the best," she said.

Take Kayla Pedersen. She won the most outstanding player award – enough said.

Take Jeannette Pohlen. She got no tournament recognition, but is another unselfish and invaluable leader of this team, with 12 assists during the tournament. In the end game, Pohlen had an off night in terms of points (10) and assists (0). She also had 5 turnovers. But those numbers are misleading. Pohlen led the team up court, time and again defeating USC's attempt at a trapping defense. She was a money player – consider her end-of-the-first-half 60-foot dribble drive.

Take Jillian Harmon. As usual, Harmon, especially on defense, was money. She was also the assist leader for the tournament with 13. With 28 points, she was the third highest scorer for the tournament. She belonged on the all-tournament team.

Take Sarah Boothe. She played just under 19 minutes per game, put up 24 points, and made few mistakes (matching 3 turnovers with 3 assists).

Take "dive and slide" specialist Lindy La Rocque. She had 19 points in the tournament, shooting 6-13 from the three-point line. On the last night, she put up an assist, 2 steals, a three pointer, and no turnovers in 17 minutes on the court.

Take Rosalyn Gold-Onwude. She had 18 points spread over three games, shooting 3-5 from the three-point line and 6-10 overall. On the last night she shot 100% from the field (3-3 including one three pointer) and had 4 assists without a turnover. Gold-Onwude is back.

Take Melanie Murphy - She played herself solidly into the rotation (averaging just under 14 minutes per game) while putting up 7 wonderful assists, 5 steals, and 18 points.

Take Michelle Harrison. She's the tenth player in this unselfish group. She played an average of 8 minutes a game. She offered up 8 points, including a three pointer, along with 6 boards, 2 steals, and an assist. A significant contribution, and she looks very confident on the floor.

During the USC press conference, USC coach Mark Trakh said Stanford should be a number 1 seed. "They can go to the final four," he said. Trakh thought Stanford was a better team than Duke. Connecticut, he offered, was the team to beat, but Stanford had a team that could give Connecticut a game.

During the Stanford press conference, VanDerveer, along with Appel and Harmon, spoke confidently about the upcoming NCAA tournament. When asked about seeding, VanDerveer avoided a prediction, but said that Stanford was one of the most improved teams in the country. She invited the surmise that, should Stanford not get a number one seed, she would be disappointed. Harmon spoke of her strong desire to play six more games with a team that she loves. When the press conference ended, the Coach and players rose to leave. I blurted out – "Congratulations." Harmon turned back and smiled. "Thank you," she said.

Tournament Notes:

Coach Mark Trakh defended the Galen cite for the Pac-10 tournament. He praised the facility and the easy availability of nearby practice facilities on campus. Trakh acknowledged the lesser attendance (compared to San Jose), but said that both USC (with the hoped for addition of more All-American players) and UCLA should be better next year, and should draw more fans. The Galen Center is a state of the art facility – a plus for this venue.

In a Friday night conversation, Fox Sports broadcaster Mary Murphy told this reporter that she was aware of complaints that Fox has at times not kept the camera on the action. She listened to the concern, and promised to be more aware of the problem. The problem may lie with the producer inside the trailer who makes the decision what camera shot to display. The broadcasters are asked to speak about whatever appears on the camera.

The Pac-10 paid a lot of attention to the media in this tournament. Credentialed reporters were offered courtside seating with plug-ins for portable computers and video displays of updated game statistics. Messengers brought press releases and other updates on scores and stats to reporters on a regular basis. If the press coverage was inadequate, it was not the fault of the Pac-10.

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