Entering the Gravy Zone

Stanford took care of Iowa State 74-53 to advance to the Final Four for the second year in a row. The Cardinal happily accepted the Cyclones' invitation to pound the ball inside to center Jayne Appel. Forty-six points later, Appel had a new school record and Stanford was hoisting the Berkeley Regional trophy.

Iowa State had a plan to defend Stanford. Unfortunately for them, it worked perfectly. Having seen Stanford destroy his team from the outside back in November in a tournament in Hawaii, Iowa State head coach Bill Fennelly decided that this time around he would defend Stanford center Jayne Appel one-on-one and not let the other Stanford players beat them. "I wasn't worried about how many points she scored," said Fennelly. "Our plan was to make 10 or 11 threes, take away the threes from them. We tried to double and triple her in Hawaii and just got annihilated (Stanford beat them by 38 points). The offensive rebounds and putting her on the free throw line 10 times were the bigger concerns that I had."

They might have wondered a little about that plan after Appel scored 10 points in the first 5 minutes of the game, on pace for 80. Perhaps they had some doubt by the time she had outscored the entire Iowa State team 27 to 25 at the half and Stanford led by 13. But Iowa State stuck to their guns and Appel just kept scoring. By the time she was finished, Appel had scored 46 points, breaking the Stanford record for points in a game (previously 44 by both Candice Wiggins and Kate Starbird) and earning a spot in the NCAA tournament record books with the third highest single game total in tournament history (and the highest in over 15 years). Appel did not quite outscore Iowa State all by her lonesome but she was close. Her final stats were 46 points on 19-28 shooting and 8-10 free throws, 16 rebounds, and 3 blocks. Sophomore G Jeanette Pohlen chipped in 8 points, 10 rebounds, and 4 assists. Both junior G Rosalyn Gold-Onwude and sophomore F Kayla Pedersen notched 8 assists feeding the beast. The final score was Stanford 74, Iowa State 53. That was one great plan.

Daring a Tara VanDerveer team to score inside is like waving a red cape at a bull. Iowa State encouraged their own destruction by Stanford's favorite pound-it-inside method. VanDerveer's urge to "get the ball inside to Jayne" is akin to that of a vampire's lust for blood. It's almost a reflex for Cardinal players to make great entry passes. Iowa State opened the coffin without having a stake at the ready. The Cyclones had two 6'4" posts, starter Nicky Wieben and reserve Jocelyn Anderson, but they had no one who could slow down Appel. Fennelly's plan required more defensive resistance than they could offer. It did not help that the Cyclones, normally a pretty good rebounding team, basically abandoned the boards in favor of stopping possible transition baskets by Stanford. The Cardinal out-rebounded the Cyclones by an astounding 47-18 margin. Iowa State had to hope that Appel would miss but she was not about to falter with the Final Four on the line.

"Tara told me before the game that she was pretty sure they weren't going to double so we knew immediately that we were going to go inside. That was our game plan from the very beginning. It worked for us," said Appel. "We weren't going to leave here without cutting down those nets. It wasn't an option for us and I think that's the mentality we've come out with this entire season, that we are going to a certain place and we are going to leave there victorious."

Setting that scoring record was nice, but Appel had other thoughts primarily in mind. "It's a tremendous honor but I couldn't have done it without the other four players on the court. They're the people who have to get me the ball, take care of the ball, bring it up the court," offered Appel. "I was going to do whatever it took to get our seniors a win in this game. Morgan (Clyburn), I wish she could be playing for us but she has been out all season and has been contributing in other ways. At breakfast I was surprised because she was reading the scouting report and she's not even going in the game. That's the type of seniors we have this year. There was no way I wasn't going to do everything possible to go on another trip to the Final Four."

Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer noted that despite the "easy" single coverage, Appel still had to execute. "Jayne had to deliver. She had two and three people on her sometimes. She definitely had people working behind her and pushing her. She had some good shots but that was their plan," commented VanDerveer. "Whether Jayne scores 4 points or 46 points, she is the same person. She really sets an example for people."

Stanford had a plan too, and it was a simple one – no threes and no fouls. The Cardinal expended a lot of energy on defense chasing the Cyclones through screens and extending out beyond the three-point line to allow the Cyclones very few uncontested three-point shots. Iowa State shot 36.3% for the game and connected on only 7-26 from beyond the arc and 4-7 from the free throw line. Senior F Amanda Nisleit went 5-9 from long distance and led the Cyclones with 17 points but no other Cyclone had much success. Iowa State needed to hit a lot of threes for the let-Appel-have-her-way plan to be successful. "We knew what we had to do. We had to keep them from shooting threes and not foul them. I was really proud of the fact that they only shot 7 free throws," explained VanDerveer. "I think they were thinking they were going to take a three for a two. I was just like every time I could yelling, ‘No threes! Get out on the three-point shooters.' We did a better job in the second half. For the most part we really got out on their three-point shooters."

Iowa State finally did try to make life more difficult for Appel very late in the game. They played a little zone and made it harder for her to post up as effectively. By then the rest of the Stanford players were so unused to shooting the ball that they did miss a few open looks, but Iowa State was too far behind for that to matter. VanDerveer, wary after watching Iowa State come back strong to defeat Michigan State in the previous round, left Appel in to wreak havoc until she felt entirely comfortable about the outcome. Said VanDerveer, "I never felt comfortable in the game. Even when we were substituting the five people (with about a minute to go), I had just seen how quickly in a minute and 22 seconds [Iowa State] came back from being down 7 and I didn't want it to even be close. (Associate head coach) Amy Tucker said to me, she phrased it this way, ‘Well do you want Jayne to break [Candice Wiggins'] record?' I said, ‘I don't care about records. I just want to win this game.' I don't even pay attention to it. It wasn't even about staying in to break a record. I was aware of it but it was more do we need her in there? In my mind we did. Once I didn't think we did, I took her out."

Stanford advances to their second Final Four in a row (against either Connecticut or Arizona State at the time of this writing) after an absence of over a decade, and this season officially enters the gravy zone – a national championship would be sweet but the season is a resounding success already and nothing that happens hereafter can put much of a damper on it. Stanford had to reconfigure the line-up after a very early injury to starting point guard JJ Hones and the process was not always straightforward. It took a lot of tinkering by the coaches and a lot of adjusting by the players to make things work.

The way the Cardinal glided through the NCAA tournament to reach the Final Four was almost too easy; the smallest margin of victory was 18 points against Ohio State. But VanDerveer knows just how uncertain fate can be in Elite Eight games. "There was no guarantee we were going last year and no guarantee we were going this year. We might have been able to go the year that we got to the Elite Eight and we were playing Tennessee (2004). It came down to one play. It came down to one play against LSU (2006). It didn't come down to one play tonight. But three times in a row we were in this game and lost," noted VanDerveer. "We tried as hard as we could to convey to our team how special this game is. Even winning a national championship, when I think back to 1990 I don't think I was happier than when we won (the regional) at Maples (Pavilion). I tried to communicate to our team that not only would it be great to go to the Final Four but you're here and your fans are here. It would be a night that they would remember all of their lives."

Stanford seniors Jillian Harmon and Morgan Clyburn can take pride that it was under their watch that the Cardinal reestablished themselves as a regular Final Four participant. Two in a row in the current competitive climate is no mean feat. Said Harmon, "It means everything. My freshman year we got to this game and lost. It was really disheartening. The next year we lost in the second round. So to come back two years in a row is just so exciting. We put the program back on the map as one that's going to the Final Four every year. To do it with this team and these coaches is so special."

Now we can finally answer the question that was on everyone's mind at the start of this season – what did last season mean? Was that first Final Four in a decade a blip on the radar engendered by the passionate final season of one of Stanford's best-ever players or was it a sign that Stanford had turned the corner on all those past near misses? As VanDerveer put it early on, "Was it Wiggins or was it Stanford?" We can give a very clear answer to that one now – it was Stanford.

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

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