Stanford's Nicole Powell, here driving against Arizona's Julie Brase, was the conference tournament's Most Outstanding Player (John Todd, AP)
By Glenn Nelson, HoopGurlz.com
SAN JOSE, Calif. - If there were any doubts as to the kind of company Shawntinice Polk was going to keep during the Pac-10 Conference Tournament championship game, the Stanford Cardinal served early notice. It came, in fact, on Polk's first touch on the low block. Immediately she was surrounded by four Cardinal defenders, one of whom, Susan King, snatched the ball from Polkey, as is her wont to be known, and streaked the other way.
Thus was hatched one of the Pac-10's great magic tricks - the Stanford Cardinal stopped the seemingly unstoppable. They made the Pac-10 freshman of the year and erstwhile Washington Husky killer disappear.
So thorough was Polk's vanishing act - she went the first 13 minutes, 22 seconds without a basket and finished with five points and just six shots - that the Cardinal was able to withstand a determined push by her supporting cast to prevail 59-49 and claim a Pac-10 tournament title to go along with its regular-season conference championship.
Taking an opposite tact from Washington, which was decimated by Polk's 22 points and the Wildcat inside game in the semifinals, the Cardinal threw a kitchen-sink defense at the Arizona freshman and virtually dared her teammates to be the ones to beat them.
Still, it wasn't as much that Stanford rendered Polk invisible to all as it rendered her invisible mostly to her teammates. So convincing was their early defensive blanket that the Cardinal essentially dissuaded the Wildcats from going to their inside pillar. Later, the conceit complete, they were able to slip a single defender behind Polk and then go after her teammates.
"We didn't get it to our big girl," Arizona Coach Joan Bonvicini said, "as much as we should have and could have."
The inspiration for the Stanford ploy came from the darndest source. Someone heard Polk tell reporters that she didn't like to be fronted. That critical piece of information found its way back to the delighted Cardinal.
"We were like, 'Oh, thank you for telling us that; we are going to front you,' " Stanford's Chelsea Trotter recounted. "If I were her, I would've been frustrated. She said some things under her breath that showed her frustration."
The frustration took hold early, as the Cardinal came out ripping the twine from three-point range. There was no stopping their star, Nicole Powell, the tournament's Most Outstanding Player, who threw down three three-pointers and a pair of two-point buckets as Stanford raced to an early 23-9 lead. That advantage grew later in the first half to 20, even with Powell benched with two fouls.
Arizona's perimeter troika of Dee-Dee Wheeler (13 points), Aimee Grzyb (10 points) and Julie Brase (eight) finally got untracked near the end of the half, as the Wildcats rode their shooting and fullcourt pressure to knock their halftime deficit to just 11 points. They further shrank the deficit as low as four points, on Brase's triple with 14:07 to play, but the Cardinal got timely threes from Sebnem Kimyacioglu, Kelley Suminski and T'Nae Thiel to help fend them off.
Stanford's perimeter outburst, coupled with Arizona's interior impotence (just one made free throw), made the difference. There was an unlikely source of inspiration for that, too.
Before the game, Cardinal Coach Tara VanDerveer spied a "fan education" sheet that provided short scouting reports on the Stanford players. The fan-friendly reports gushed on about the various Cardinal's outside shooting prowess. VanDerveer said she intended to present the sheet to her team, left it in the locker room when she went to eat dinner and discovered it missing when she returned.
The message had been delivered.
"It reminded them of something they needed to do," VanDerveer said. "We have a lot of great shooters. I believe shooting is so mental. Our team needed to be reminded they could knock down the shots we wanted."
Simple game, basketball. For Stanford, the conference tournament championship came down to a little persuasion. That the Wildcats could not throw the ball inside and that they, the Cardinal, could toss it down from the outside.
Nicole Powell, Stanford (Most Outstanding Player)
Kelley Suminski, Stanford
Shawntinice Polk, Arizona
Krista Warren, Arizona
Dee-Dee Wheeler, Arizona
Nikki Blue, UCLA
Arizona's Shawntinice Polk battles the Stanford defense
(John Todd, AP)