A Bittersweet Year

For Cardinal women, a near-perfect record, but still No. 2.

May/June 2010

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A Bittersweet Year

CHAMPS: Gold-Onwude holds the NCAA West Regional Trophy. Photo: Marc Abrams/Stanford Athletics

You want memories? Put some mental frames around the images of Jayne Appel, her face contorted in pain because she refused to stay off her injured right ankle while her team still needed her.

You want hope? Remember that next season's women's basketball team will be stocked with most of the players from this year's powerful, 36-win squad, plus the nation's most highly regarded recruit.

You want a national championship and nothing less? Maybe next year.

Stanford rumbled into the April 6 NCAA final in San Antonio as the No. 2 team in the country. And for the first half, the title appeared winnable, right then, despite the challenge posed by one of the most intimidating opponents of all time, a defending champion University of Connecticut team on a 77-game winning streak. A bizarrely incompetent opening 20 minutes by UConn's Huskies—provoked in part by a fiercely assertive and well-prepared Stanford defense —produced the lowest combined first-half scoring in Final Four history and an encouraging 20-12 Cardinal lead.

But the second half was all UConn, which found its offensive rhythm while Stanford never did. The Huskies, fueled by Maya Moore's rejuvenated long-distance shooting, eventually led by 16 points (47-31) and eased to a 53-47 victory. No one has beaten UConn since Stanford did it in the Final Four semifinals two years ago, and the only Cardinal loss this season before the championship showdown came at the hands of UConn, 80-68 in December. Everyone associated with Stanford was left to juggle the emotions of a third straight Final Four appearance without a championship.

"We need this to be motivating and inspiring for our team," Coach Tara VanDerveer said near the end of the postgame press conference. "And we need it to be extremely painful. The fact that it is painful and we're not just saying we're happy to be here is a good thing for us at Stanford."

Jayne Appel goes up for a shotAppel battles UConn’s Tina Charles, and injury at the final. (Photo: Eric Gay/AP Photo)


The physical pain limiting Appel, whose inability to maneuver normally contributed to her 0-12 shooting against UConn, undermined her otherwise imposing presence at center. And no one else was able to create the spark for what temporarily loomed as an upset of mammoth proportion. The always redoubtable Kayla Pedersen was just 5-13 from the field with 15 points. Sophomore star Nnemkadi "Nneka'' Ogwumike, the Pac-10 player of the year, was 5-14 with 11 points, and JJ Hones, a redshirt junior, was 1-9 with three points. Stanford shot a miserably consistent 26.5 percent for the game.

What stung the most was that UConn nevertheless opened the door for the Cardinal by shooting an inconceivably feeble 17.2 percent in the first half. For one stretch, the Huskies went more than 10 1/2 minutes without a point. Yet Stanford missed shot after shot that could have put UConn in a potentially inescapable hole.

"I think our whole team is hurting right now to be that close," said Pedersen, a junior. "You know, to be winning at halftime and to make our run at the very end. It hurts to lose. But, I mean, quite frankly, I'm just angry. I don't want to be that LSU team [five straight Final Fours] that never wins a national championship. So I think that's what the players that are returning are thinking right now."

The only seniors were Appel and guard Rosalyn Gold-Onwude, the co-defensive player of the year in the Pac-10. Both are veterans of the 2008 title game loss to Tennessee and the 2009 semifinal loss to UConn.

Pedersen goes up for a shotPedersen gets past UConn during the final’s first half. (Photo: Sue Ogrocki/AP Photo)


Appel, who willed herself back into action after a hard fall and anti-inflammatory injection early in the second half, told reporters she wasn't feeling much immediate pain in her ankle. That would come later, along with the unrelenting sting of the championship result.

"I think what's the hardest," noted VanDerveer, "is Jayne having such a great career at Stanford, and I just—I'm really sad for her to go out on this kind of game."

Fans got an oddly out-of-sync but fascinating game that pitted the No. 1 and No. 2 teams against each other for the title, for the first time since 2002. And although no one was really surprised that Stanford reached the tourney final—indeed, it was a scenario that hoops devotees had talked about all season—the Cardinal made the process surprisingly suspenseful.

The Huskies, for instance, racked up a 20-point win, 70-50, in their semifinal against a formidable team from Baylor, but Stanford only got by Oklahoma 73-66, letting a 61-43 lead tighten to 67-64 and 69-66 before closing out the victory. The star down the stretch and throughout the game was Ogwumike, who poured in 38 points, the second-best single-game total in Final Four history behind Sheryl Swoopes's 47 for Texas Tech in the 1993 championship. And just to add an exclamation mark to her efforts, Ogwumike also pulled down a game-high 16 rebounds.

Pohlen dribbles past a competitorPohlen saves the day at the regional final. (Photo: Rich Pedroncelli /AP Photo)


Still, the Oklahoma game looked like a walk in the park compared to the regional final against Xavier University in Sacramento. A supercharged, last-hairbreadth-of-a-second layup by junior Jeanette Pohlen, who dribbled the length of the court in the final 4.4 seconds, was required to notch the win—and that was possible only because of two shocking misses by Xavier on uncontested layups. The Cardinal previously had rolled over UC-Riverside 79-47, blasted Iowa 96-67 and then annihilated Georgia 73-36. But against a well-coached Xavier squad that played stifling defense, Stanford shot just 35 percent from the field and couldn't execute its usual power game near the basket.

By the eve of the UConn game, all the themes had been explored to exhaustion: How much was Appel's ankle hampering her and subtracting from Stanford's overall performance? How much of the load could be carried by Ogwumike, the team leader in both field-goal percentage and rebounds? And, as a sidelight, what would next season hold for Ogwumike, when she's joined at Stanford by her sister, Chiney, who might even—this is hard to fathom—be better than Nneka? Finally, which Pohlen would show up against UConn: the big shooting guard who poses a match-up nightmare for the opposition or the flamboyantly erratic, turnover-prone player who can make her own team wonder who she's playing for? VanDerveer hit the quote jackpot with the press after the Xavier nail-biter by saying of Pohlen, "She can be the best player for both teams."

It turned out that Pohlen made only one turnover against UConn and was 3-5 from three-point range, with two of those baskets coming in the final 2 1/2 minutes as Stanford tried desperately to rally. But this time, there was no reprieve, no last-second opportunity for a clutch rescue and no more time to accomplish the miraculous. Next year, maybe.

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