Distorted Finale?

Stanford's high hopes of knocking off undefeated Connecticut fizzled early. The Cardinal got 26 points from center Jayne Appel but the Huskies dominated on the perimeter to prevail easily 83-64.

If we may borrow a word from noted basketball philosopher Charli Turner-Thorne, "Poop!" What a poopy way to end a fine season. The Cardinal never looked comfortable against the Connecticut Huskies on Sunday evening in St. Louis. It is very rare that Stanford loses big, but the 83-64 dismantling by the Huskies was sadly hopeless from far too early. Stanford did not play particularly well when only their best would have given them a fighting chance. The all-around strength of Connecticut, especially their often spectacular perimeter play, put the Cardinal under a magnifying glass; all the blemishes the Card were good enough to hide against lesser teams ("lesser" including a whole lot of very good teams) showed up larger than life, large enough to overshadow their better attributes. It was like looking in a fun house mirror. Connecticut looked in the mirror and saw their perfect, smiling faces amidst the hardware of post-season honors. Stanford looked and wondered who the curiously distorted strangers frowning back at them might be.

As they have done several times throughout the season, the Cardinal struggled with early turnovers against the #1 ranked Huskies and their rankling coach. Stanford has generally been able to settle down and recover from rough starts, but unlike previous foes, in Connecticut the Card faced an opponent to whom they could ill afford to give cheap early points. Stanford gave up 13 points off 11 turnovers in the first half. A better start might have changed the complexion of the game, at least made the Huskies blink rather than sink every shot they tried. Stanford was uptight and fighting from behind right from the opening tap; they never recovered their rhythm on offense. Credit Connecticut's excellent defense for much of the Card's struggles, but Stanford never showed close to their best on offense. It was chicken and egg time – which came first, the good defense or the tentative offense? The Cardinal did climb back from an 11-4 hole to grab their first and only lead at 14-13, but that brief spark was another fun house illusion. Stanford labored to score while the Huskies made difficult shots look easy even when well defended. At the half, Connecticut held a 13-point lead (37-24) and Stanford was probably lucky it was only 13. Once Stanford had failed to score during the first 5 minutes of the second half, the game was essentially over.

According to Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer, to win this game against the undefeated, unchallenged Huskies, who have won every game by double digits, Stanford needed to shut down the Huskies' transition game, prevent offensive rebounds, and stop Connecticut from bombing three-pointers. The Cardinal did not allow the Huskies to dominate on the boards. They out-rebounded Connecticut by 1 and grabbed 12 offensive rebounds to 7 for the Huskies, yet even that bit of good news was not the genuine article. Stanford needed to dominate the boards, a big strength all season – playing basically even was not good enough. Stanford needed a big edge inside to counteract the perimeter firepower Connecticut could unleash. Junior C Jayne Appel, a bright spot for Stanford, did her part, scoring 26 points on 10-19 shooting against fellow All-American Tina Charles and very physical defense by a variety of Huskies. Freshman F Nneka Ogwumike had a good day with 13 points and 12 rebounds, but it took her a while to get untracked in her first Final Four contest (of what we hope will be many).

Both teams had the same number of fast break points. The transition game was not what killed the Cardinal. They got burned a few times but Connecticut did not run Stanford out of the game. After the early flurry of easy baskets off Card turnovers, the Huskies beat Stanford in the half-court game, mostly by senior G Renee Montgomery creating shots for herself or teammates. If the Cardinal had been able to execute their offense and hit the open shots they did generate it would have helped, but despite playing some pretty solid defense, they could not slow Connecticut sufficiently to hang around.

Connecticut hit 8-21 shots from beyond the arc, which is too many, and the timing of many of those threes hurt Stanford. When Stanford crept close in the first half, a hail of long-range shots from the Huskies slammed the Card back into a hole. Most of the threes Connecticut took were contested, as were many of their other jump shots. They just made them, no matter what Stanford did. Sophomore G Maya Moore, the Wade Trophy winner, scored 24 points and grabbed 8 rebounds. Montgomery, a first team All-American, led the Huskies with 26 points, 6 assists, and 4 steals. Even freshman Tiffany Hayes, who has been up and down as a scorer, burned the Cardinal; Hayes went 3-5 from beyond the arc and her very deep three that opened the scoring may have set the Cardinal on their heels moments after stepping on court. That shot felt like a very bad omen and indeed it was.

Stanford, on the other hand, did not hit their shots well enough. On offense, besides the advantage they hoped for in the paint, Stanford needed to present a balanced attack, hit outside shots, and take good care of the ball. In the four NCAA tournament games prior to the Final Four, the Cardinal had not been especially hot from outside. In fact, they'd been rather anemic. Their shooting percentages in those games looked just fine, but they were mostly pounding opponents inside with just enough outside shooting to keep a semblance of balance. The percentages were deceptive. Offensive rebounds were also critical to Stanford's offense, leading to many easy baskets against most teams, but not against Connecticut. Stanford had to do more to compensate for losing their "easy" offense, but against a strong Connecticut defense, the shots did not fall. Perhaps winning so handily by going inside over and over disrupted an outside game that was occasionally successful but was more often a struggle. Though the Cardinal did have games where they shot very well, they were not consistent enough to rely on shooting well to win. Stanford found an identity mid-way through the season by rebounding and running. VanDerveer said on more than one occasion that Stanford had little margin for error this season. She was right, and they were on the wrong side of that margin on Sunday.

Though the loss to Connecticut was a disheartening way to conclude an excellent season, a little thought about the way the Cardinal made their jury-rigged line-up, with every player save Appel a newcomer (Ogwumike) or playing a different position than last season or even earlier this season (everyone else), work for them well enough to earn a prized Final Four berth will sway most to appreciate the accomplishments of this team rather despair over the final game. For instance who would have guessed at the start of this season, that senior Jillian Harmon, who began her college journey as a "4" and the season as a "3," would end up as the starting "2" guard? The "big" line-up featuring sophomore G Jeanette Pohlen at the point, a line-up that carried the Cardinal to the Final Four, was only put in place late in the season. Perhaps the Cardinal did not have all the kinks worked out yet. Certainly there were still times when execution did not flow as instinctively as a team would wish. Stanford hit major bumps, swerved to avoid deep potholes, and kept changing the driver, all while steering well enough to get a close up view of the checkered flag.

Now this season is over and the next group of seniors is on the clock. Stanford will be one of the pre-season favorites in 2009-2010, probably ranked #2 to begin the season. Seniors Jillian Harmon and Morgan Clyburn will be missed, but Stanford retains much more than almost any of the top contenders. We don't want to get into the specifics of next season now but if you are not excited about the possibilities, you need a new hobby. In 2008, reaching the Final Four seemed like a long overdue miracle. In 2009 the stunning part was how coolly it all played out. Stanford expected to go and despite obstacles, they did. The funhouse mirror works two ways. Stanford's extreme close-up against Connecticut was not flattering. But stand back and look again. While the imperfections do not vanish, the whole glorious puzzle fits together as a thing of beauty. Enjoy the good things and don't think, "poop," think "fertilizer."

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

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