This Team Will Be Back'

Mark Humphrey/AP

Stanford assistant women’s basketball coach Bobbie Kelsey watched intently from a few rows above courtside as the University of Oklahoma players threw up a series of haphazard shots while the clock wound down. “Why don’t they go to the big girl?” wondered Kelsey as the Sooners, unable to capitalize on All-American center Courtney Paris, suffered a bitter 61-59 defeat at the hands of Louisville in their national championship semifinal.

van derveer diagram poster
VIDEO: Stanford's women's basketball coach shows how her team gets the ball inside to center Jayne Appel, '10.

“I guarantee you—guaran-TEE you—that we’d get the ball to Jayne,” said Kelsey. “You got a horse, you ride her.”

And Stanford tried, mightily. Back in the Final Four for a second straight season, propelled in large part by the agile power of 6-foot-4 center Jayne Appel, the Cardinal knew what it would take to beat undefeated University of Connecticut in the second semifinal. If only knowing were doing. UConn, fast and physical, overwhelmed Stanford 83-64—a stark ending to an otherwise inspired season.

Head coach Tara VanDerveer, balancing the immediate emotion with the perspective of a 33-5 record from November to April, talked afterwards about “a feeling of great accomplishment in getting here, but a great disappointment in not playing better.”

“Sure, there were tears in here,” said sophomore forward Kayla Pedersen. “I’m really proud of this team. There’s two minutes left, and we’re still pounding as hard as we were at the start. That says something.”

Pound the ball they did, mostly toward Appel, the junior whose domination close to the basket produced a Stanford single-game record of 46 points when the Cardinal beat Iowa State 74-53 to reach the Final Four.

But on April 5 at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis, the UConn defenders swarmed and battered Appel, who despite scoring 26 points simply couldn’t carry the entire team when nothing else—nothing at all—jelled for Stanford.

UConn’s Huskies “came out with a game plan to be very physical—always have a body on me,” said Appel, the Pac-10 Player of the Year (in a season following shoulder surgery). “I kept trying, kept trying to get in as deep as possible, trying to wear them down.”

But the opposite happened. The more Stanford forced the ball inside, trying to ride on their star’s strength and heart, the more the Huskies wore Appel down. She scored her fifth basket a little less than midway through the first half, then made only one of six shots and turned the ball over twice during the rest of the half. No one else generated any real offense.

“We did not shoot the ball well,” said VanDerveer. “We struggled turning the ball over. . . . We took some bad shots early, too quick. We missed shots that we needed to make, that we could make.”

Senior Jillian Harmon, a small (6-foot-1) forward playing as a guard in the “big” lineup that evolved late in the season, contributed only two points and had to cope with finishing her career in a harshly different way than she had dreamed. She offered advice to the teammates blessed with future seasons, stressing the need to “remember this loss and have it motivate them. Everyone on our team can do that. And I know this team will be back strong.”

When the season started, Stanford had the memory of a championship-game loss to Tennessee the previous April. More pressingly, the team was trying to answer a host of questions. What would life be like without guard Candice Wiggins, ’08, who had provided superstar leadership for the four previous seasons? Would Stanford smoothly restyle itself to capitalize on its bounty of powerful inside players, who ranged from hardened veterans to much-touted freshmen? How long into the season would it take to jell?

Last year:
Stanford beats University of Connecticut 82-73 in the Final Four semifinals before losing to Tennessee 64-48 in the championship game.

This year:
UConn gets its revenge by defeating Stanford 83-64 in the semi-finals and goes on to win the NCAA title by routing Louisville 76-54.

Then the questions got even trickier. Junior JJ Hones, who was supposed to assume command at point guard, was lost to a season-ending injury in game No. 6. There was more than one candidate to step in—redshirt junior Rosalyn Gold-Onwude, sophomore Jeanette Pohlen or perhaps redshirt sophomore Melanie Murphy—but who was worthiest? And what kind of team would Stanford be as soon as mid-December, when tough road games with Duke and Tennessee were on the schedule?

The answers evolved gradually. At first, Gold-Onwude was starting at the point, although Pohlen was playing there as well. The Cardinal lost to Duke by four points and to Tennessee by 10 in overtime. After opening the Pac-10 season with four victories, there was a wakeup-call loss to Cal, 57- 54, in Berkeley. After that, Pohlen emerged as the point guard in charge of running the team and setting the tone. She was doing lots of things right, but most of all, her aggressive hustle made her both a catalyst and a leader.

“The person who has really led the way up has been Jeanette,” said VanDerveer, just before the Pac-10 tournament. And along with Pohlen’s maturation came that of 6-foot-2 freshman forward Nnemkadi Ogwumike, who moved into the starting lineup for the last two regular-season games and stayed there. That created the powerhouse quintet of Appel, Pedersen (also 6-foot-4), Harmon, Ogwumike and the 6-foot Pohlen.

Ogwumike, whose potential over the next few years is almost reason enough for Stanford to shrug off what happened in St. Louis, said in a radio interview before the Connecticut game that being installed as a starter was a shot in the arm for her confidence. Indeed, she was both a scoring and rebounding force throughout almost all of the Pac-10 tourney and the four NCAA games leading up to the Final Four.

Against UConn, Pohlen couldn’t find the command and touch that had elevated her game. She had as many turnovers—four—as points, shooting just 2-for-10 in field-goal attempts. “We are so young, and we are still growing,” said Pohlen. Without more generalship, the Cardinal lost its only lead (14-13) and fell crushingly behind, 31-18, during a five-minute UConn burst. Stanford opened the second half ice cold and was out of the game, trailing 50-24, even though there were 15 minutes to go.

“They stepped up and made plays that they had to make, and they don’t make a lot of mistakes,” VanDerveer said of the Huskies. “They don’t take bad shots. They play within the flow of the game, and they play with a purpose.”

Post game, the Stanford players found some consolation in sharing the season’s journey, despite the jarring ending.

“We stayed together the whole game. The whole game. That’s the best part,” said Pohlen. “It’s amazing we made it this far, when you think of what we went through. We know better now what we can do. We all get along and we play well together. That makes it easier to think about what we have to do next year.”

Before VanDerveer was out of the arena, she was beginning to itemize the necessary improvements. “We have to take care of the ball,” she noted. And maybe more tellingly, “We have to be in better condition to be able to run.

“The physical play in this game,” she added, “was different than I’ve seen all year. Next year we open at Old Dominion and play Rutgers, Tennessee, Duke, Gonzaga, Utah. We start a home-and-away (series) with Connecticut, so we’re playing a tough schedule. We want to compete better.”

There were no excuses. There was even pride.

“Connecticut was head and shoulders above us tonight,” said VanDerveer. “In some ways the game did define us, in some ways it did not. But for our team to be playing in the Final Four . . . I’m exceedingly proud. I have to pinch myself.”

JOHN RAWLINGS is a freelance writer based in St. Louis.