Hoops Hit Hurdles

David Gonzales/Stanford Athletics

On nights when the flash was working, the Cardinal men could beat the likes of No. 3 UCLA, 75-68. In inexplicably dimmer, less confident phases, they lost to Air Force 79-45.

The women’s team, ranked fifth nationally and seeded second in the Western region of the NCAA tournament, launched their postseason run with a 96-58 rout of Idaho State. Then two days later, at home against 10th-seeded Florida State, they stumbled, 68-61.

By turns injured and healthy, relaxed and tightly wound, the two youngish teams pursued consistency all season. But it seemed to lie just beyond the arc of an elegant swish.

“It’s really, really, really disappointing because we did not get it done,” head women’s basketball coach Tara VanDerveer said about the women’s loss in the NCAA second round this year. She could have been speaking for both squads.

The Cardinal men (18-13) slipped into the Big Dance with an at-large bid. In the final minutes of the CBS Selection Show on March 12, they were the last team named to the tournament, and for a few brief moments the locker room went loopy, with point guard Anthony Goods and forward Brook Lopez carrying usually taciturn head coach Trent Johnson around in a celebratory parade.

Three days later, on March 15, playing at 9:30 a.m. Pacific time, the Cardinal was shaken by a jarring alarm. They came out timid against the unrelenting full-court press of sixth-seeded Louisville (24-9) and were unable to fall back on their inside size. Turning the ball over seven times in the first eight minutes of play, they struggled with foul trouble and shot only 13 of 27 from the free-throw line. The final 78-58 body count was a grim reminder, for some, of the Card’s 21-point loss to Mississippi State in 2005, the last time they played in the NCAA tournament.

“We planned on attacking,” Goods said. “But we got out there and started thinking too much.”

It was an echo of what VanDerveer has called “paralysis by analysis” this season. When the Cardinal women (29-5) lost the November 13 home game to Brigham Young (55-52), the lack of confidence on the court could be written off as an early-season mishap. But when the team lost its focus three months later, rattled by the opening-minute injury to freshman point guard J. J. Hones, the 72-57 drubbing by Cal in Maples was not so easily dismissed.

In the Pac-10 semifinal match against USC on March 4, the Cardinal’s standout junior guard showed why she’s twice been named Pac-10 Player of the Year. “Candice Wiggins has an ‘S’ on her chest,” said USC coach Mark Trakh, whose Trojans were battered 67-52. “That was Wonder Woman out there, Superwoman.” The three-time All-American set a tournament record, hitting eight of nine three-pointers to score 29 points. Wiggins averaged 21.7 points per game and was named most outstanding player of the Pac-10 tournament, which Stanford handily won.

Stanford entered the NCAAs riding a streak of three straight Elite Eight appearances. But in the second-round NCAA match-up against Florida State, Wiggins & Co. lacked focus from the opening tip-off, missing five of the first six free throws. Wiggins tried to rally the troops, and senior center Brooke “The Hook” Smith, a two-time All-American, played a tireless 40 minutes, contributing 12 points. But the flash had cooled, and the Card made only 43 percent of its shots that night.

Wiggins will be back next year, with her hungry, experienced teammates and four stellar recruits. Smith was drafted by the Minnesota Lynx, Kristen Newlin by the Houston Comets. For the Cardinal men, Brook Lopez, one-half of the twin frosh towers who are considered top NBA prospects, issued a statement on March 19 saying that he—and presumably, his brother, Robin—would return to Stanford for their sophomore year. It was a hopeful refrain for Coach J, who had promised fans after the Louisville loss: “We’ll be back.”