Doppelganger Dropped

Stanford battled their nerves as much as the Ohio State Buckeyes early but finally broke down the Buckeyes by pounding them in the paint. The 84-66 win moves Stanford into the Elite Eight to face the Iowa State Cyclones on Monday.

Subduing the Ohio State Buckeyes took a while, probably significantly longer than necessary. In the Buckeyes Stanford was facing a team that looked suspiciously familiar. Both teams have strong inside games led by a conference Player of the Year: Jayne Appel in the Pac-10 and Jantel Lavender in the Big Ten. Both teams have mobile posts, love to run, and feature point guards that push the pace: Stanford's Jeanette Pohlen and Ohio State's Samantha Prahalis. Both teams have some good three-point shooters but can win without a long-range barrage. Both teams play strong defense and are reasonably deep. Maybe seeing their doppelganger in Ohio State unnerved Stanford a fraction. The Cardinal may have been thinking that of the three other teams in the Berkeley Regional, Ohio State probably posed the sternest test; the Stanford/Ohio State winner would be a strong favorite for a Final Four berth. Or maybe it was playing in what felt like the bottom of a swimming pool in Cal's Haas Pavilion, which was missing the lower bleachers and sported tall, dark (but not handsome) curtains around the court, with the nearest fans far above the action.

Whatever it was that made them jumpy, the Card started the game with four goofy turnovers in the first four minutes, missed eminently makeable shots, and had oodles of trouble containing the drives of shifty Buckeye freshman Prahalis. Ohio State led 8-2 early and Stanford's play was as ugly as that score indicates. Were it not for some timely three-pointers off the bench by junior G Rosalyn Gold-Onwude, who has made a welcome habit lately of draining critical threes, Stanford might have dug a deep hole against a very good Ohio State team that had not lost a game this season when leading at the half. The Cardinal managed a 2-point intermission lead, but considering that both Lavender and Prahalis were sitting with two fouls for the last few minutes of the half, Stanford seemed to have wasted an opportunity to make hay while the sun was shining.

Stanford did not waste opportunities in the second half; they shot 58.8% compared to 41.9% in the first half. The Cardinal upped the ante inside by getting freshman F Nneka Ogwumike untracked (4 points in the first half, 11 in the second) and much better production in the paint from Appel, who finished with 25 points on 11-20 shooting (only 3-8 in the first half but 8-12 and 18 points in the second) and whose increased aggressiveness sent her counterpart Lavender to the bench with foul trouble. The Card bolstered their defense by assigning senior F Jillian Harmon to track Prahalis, who went 2-10 after the intermission after lighting up Stanford for 12 points on 6-8 shooting in the first half. Stanford held their opponent to 30% shooting in the second half and handily won the rebounding battle (42-32) yet could not put the Buckeyes away. The Cardinal would build a double-digit lead only to see the Buckeyes drag the margin back down to 4 or 5 points.

After one of Stanford's 10-point leads had been whittled down to 4 points, mostly by a string of Buckeye free throws, the Cardinal were up 4 with 5:39 to play. Had Stanford made a few more free throws (13-21 from the line including 3-9 for Appel) the lead could easily have been twice that. And Stanford had fouled Ohio State into the bonus and then kept them at the free throw line, where the Buckeyes were shooting well, rather than in their half-court offense, where they were not. The game was confoundingly close. And then, all of a sudden, Stanford finally seized control of the game as the Buckeyes' energy level, which had been sinking toward the end of the game, dropped precipitously just as the Cardinal shifted into a higher gear. A series of lay-ups by Appel, Ogwumike, and Harmon put the game out of reach and Harmon capped off the night with a shot-clock beating three-pointer. Stanford's 18-to-4 run closed out the 84-66 win and in the final minutes of the game, the two teams that had at first appeared to be so similar, looked nothing alike at all. The ending was disproportionally easy but very satisfying.

A few quotes, notes, and thoughts (in no particular order):

Samantha Prahalis lived up to the hype, though some fans did not care for her demeanor. Paralysis by Prahalis afflicted Stanford defenders, who let the slightly built frosh into the lane for easy shots in the first half. Prahalis was only shooting 33.9% for the season (26.3% from three-point range) and averaging 10.0 points per game, but she kept her team in the game more than any other player, including Lavender. It was very much a tale of two halves for the freshman, however; she was 6-8 in the first half vs. 2-10 in the second and Stanford clearly wore her down. When Prahalis pooped out, so did her team.

Some stats to ponder include Appel's line of 25 points on 11-20 shooting and 11 boards, Harmon's 16 points on 7-12 shooting plus 6 assists and 4 steals, Ogwumike's 15 points (5-6 shooting) and 7 rebounds, Gold-Onwude's 10 points (2-2 from three-point range) and 3 assists, and Pohlen's 7 points and 10 rebounds. For the Buckeyes, Lavender finished with 15 points and 6 rebounds in 28 minutes, Prahalis had 19 points and 6 assists (but 6 turnovers) and reserve G Sarah Schulze added 12 points. Stanford did a good job holding Ohio State senior F Star Allen to only 7 points and senior G Ashlee Trebilcock scoreless. The Cardinal had 19 assists and 12 turnovers; Ohio State had 13 and 14. Stanford scored 17 points off turnovers; the Buckeyes scored 6. The foul situation was fairly even. Stanford was whistled 14 times and shot 21 free throws; Ohio State heard the unhappy tweet 17 times and enjoyed shooting 19 free throws. Ohio State was hurt more by their fouls because their two centers accumulated 4 fouls each.

We mention the foul situation because Ohio State head coach Jim Foster complained, although lightly, about the fouls called on his posts in his short post-game press conference. One learns a lot about a team and a coach by how they deal with a loss. Foster pouted, reminding me of the older homeless man I sometimes pass while walking home from work when I don't have any change to spare. Foster wasn't very eager to give Stanford credit. I could be spoiled by listening to Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer, who always gives major props to an opponent, win or lose, and to most other Pac-10 coaches, who tend to do the same. Perhaps other conferences do things differently or Foster is just a taciturn guy.

Stanford sophomore G Jeanette Pohlen commented on the reason Ohio State was able to keep coming back whenever Stanford built a lead; "I think we made some decisions that might not have been the best ones. I take responsibility for that. I really need to try and calm the floor when things are getting kind of crazy. There were a few times when we had the lead and kind of let them back in just because we were taking shots that probably weren't the best percentage shots and we weren't getting it inside to Jayne."

As I watched Stanford struggle in the opening moments of the game, I was reminded how quickly we have taken for granted Pohlen's play at the point. Pohlen spent a large portion of this season at the "2" and has only been the full-time point guard since around early February. Now we fret if she has to sit down for 5 minutes and those amazing long passes to streaking posts are almost routine. Stanford is starting two sophomores, each playing a different position than last season, and a freshman. Watching Kayla Pedersen, Pohlen and Ogwumike play, it is easy to forget how young they are. A few tournament jitters are not unexpected even with the experience Stanford carried over from last season.

More from Pohlen on what happened at the end of the game that allowed Stanford to go on the big game-ending run; "Toward the end of the game, we went back to our triangle offense, which is kind of our bread and butter. They were fronting Jayne at the end, which was weird because they really weren't doing that the whole game. So that left Jayne open, let Nneka flash high and she was able to pass inside to Jayne, and Jayne was able to pass inside to Nneka."

The much-anticipated post battle between Appel and Lavender clearly went Appel's way despite a slow first half and some free throw shooting troubles. Appel had a superb second half complete with a couple of pretty moves for reverse lay-ups during Stanford's big 18-4 run, and she played good defense on Lavender without fouling. Lavender wasn't bad, but she was relatively quiet and she could not defend Appel in the second half. Foul trouble limited her on defense but she did play 28 minutes. VanDerveer said she was happy her team was able to hold Lavender to 15 points on 5-10 shooting (she was only 2-5 in the second half) and 6 rebounds. Lavender averages over 20 points and 10 rebounds. Stanford's bigs as a group outplayed Ohio State's bigs. Stanford outscored Ohio State in the paint 44 to 24 and had 13 second-chance points to only 1 for Ohio State.

On Monday Stanford faces Iowa State with a trip to St. Louis and the Final Four at stake. The Cyclones are an excellent three-point shooting team but other than that, they do not appear to have the weapons to challenge the Cardinal. Stanford beat the Cyclones 83-45 way back in November. Both teams have improved since those early days but Iowa State is still essentially a team that wins with good outside shooting and sharp execution rather than power inside or slashing quickness outside. Oddly enough their shooting percentage as a team is very low – 39.1%, though they shoot well from beyond the arc (35.2%). A 38-point loss is a real thumping and indicates that the match-up does not favor Iowa State. Every team left playing now is good and on a roll or they would be gone, so the Cardinal cannot take Iowa State lightly. If a great three-point shooting team gets hot, anything can happen. The equation looks pretty simple – if Stanford defends the perimeter shooters well they win going away.

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

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