W. Basketball: Apple State swing

Feb. 12, 2010, 12:46 a.m.

Cardinal looks to stay perfect in Pac-10

The postseason is officially looming–next week, the Cardinal will be able to count the number of remaining regular season games on a single hand. Hungry for a championship after falling to UConn in the Final Four last year, No. 2 Stanford can take some big steps toward getting in tournament shape and clinching a 10th consecutive Pac-10 regular season title this weekend as it heads north to take on Washington (9-12, 4-7 Pac-10) and Washington State (6-16, 1-10).

W. Basketball: Apple State swing
The Cardinal women will face the Washington schools on the road this weekend. Stanford’s only loss this season came away from Maples Pavilion at No. 1 Connecticut. (MASARU OKA/Staff Photographer)

The two-game series marks the penultimate road trip for the Cardinal (21-1, 11-0), which swept second-place UCLA and third-place Southern California last weekend. With a three-game cushion over the Bruins and only seven games remaining in the season, every win is critical for Stanford to stay in top form and maintain a strong seed throughout the postseason.

“This is a big weekend for us, going up to Washington,” said Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer. “Washington and Washington State aren’t in the race, so to speak, but they can knock us out of the race. We’ve got to keep improving. That’s what I’d like to see, just come out and be aggressive, and come out and play really hard and improve.

“Everything we’re doing now has to be geared to helping us do well in the NCAA tournament and sharpening up our offense, really making sure we’re boxing out on every play, tweaking little things and running our out-of-bounds plays better,” she continued.

There may be plenty of areas in which Stanford would like to improve in the coming weeks, but the team has already come a long way from some of the struggles that began in January. The Cardinal had a few close calls and unimpressive games over that stretch, including a 65-61 win over UCLA and two games against the Arizona schools in which Stanford trailed at halftime. The team looked much stronger last weekend–in fact, three starters (senior center Jayne Appel, junior forward Kayla Pedersen and sophomore forward Nnemkadi Ogwumike) had double-doubles against USC on Sunday.

“You never want to be the team that is playing the best in January, because it is kind of hard to keep improving,” Appel said. “I think it slowly turned into a blessing for us that we weren’t playing so well [last month], because we had something to build on.”

Stanford may have received an extra inspirational spark last weekend when VanDerveer’s 1989-1990 national championship team came to speak with the current Cardinal squad.

“I thought it was great for the ’90 team to come back…for our young team to meet them and talk with them,” VanDerveer said. “I think it did make a really positive impression. We had a very spirited practice [Tuesday], and I saw people being aggressive and really concentrating on doing what we asked them to do.”

Moving forward, the Cardinal’s first opponent of the weekend is Washington. The Huskies fell to the Cardinal last month at Maples Pavilion, 66-51. Despite the comfortable margin of victory–and the conference-record 112-35 drubbing her team handed the Huskies last season–VanDerveer gives respect to head coach Tia Jackson’s squad.

“We need to do a better job against their zone defense especially,” she emphasized. “Last time they played us in a zone, and we didn’t attack as well. We weren’t as aggressive as we needed to be.”

The Huskies, led by Sami Whitcomb (14.6 points per game, 6.0 rebounds per game) and Kristi Kingma (9.2 ppg, 2.7 rpg), had a solid start to the Pac-10 season, winning three of their first four games. Things went badly after their trip to the Bay Area, and Washington has lost six of its past seven games.

On Sunday, the Cardinal will head east to Pullman, Wash. for a matchup with Washington State. The Cougars have struggled immensely in the conference season, but won their last game against Arizona State, 66-62. Guard April Cook scored 33 points, accounting for exactly half of her team’s offense, and earned Pac-10 Player of the Week honors.

“Cook’s a great player, and they’re a dangerous team and they’re a young team,” VanDerveer said. “They’re not intimidated–they come out and play hard. They don’t have the expectation to win a lot of games necessarily–they’re young–but they’re athletic and they can knock down shots, and hopefully they can earn some more fans up there.”

The Cardinal played their previous two contests against the Washington schools with limited contributions from junior guard Jeanette Pohlen, who suffered a freak injury to her right ankle against the Cougars. She only played 11 minutes that weekend, missing her first game in her team’s previous 92. Fortunately for Stanford, Pohlen–currently second in the Pac-10 with 4.52 assists per game–was ready to go the following weekend and remains healthy.

“We missed Jeanette a lot in those games,” VanDerveer said. “Obviously it was a good experience [for some of the bench players], but we didn’t have the pace of the game or the enthusiasm we do when Jeanette is out there leading the way.”

In addition to Pohlen, two critical players for the Cardinal this weekend will be Appel, the reigning Pac-10 Player of the Year, and redshirt senior guard Rosalyn Gold-Onwude. In the last year of NCAA basketball for both, the duo has been heating up recently. Appel posted double-doubles in both games last weekend, while Gold-Onwude averaged 12.5 points and shot 71.4 percent from the floor. She also played solid defense, holding her counterparts–UCLA’s Jasmine Dixon and USC’s Ashley Corral–to poor shooting days.

When asked if Gold-Onwude is playing the best basketball of her soon-to-be-over college career, VanDerveer’s opinion was clear.

“Yes, I do,” she said. “The number one thing is her confidence, and she’s not making what I affectionately refer to as ‘knuckle-headed plays.’ She’s making better decisions. I’ll tell you right now, I think she is hands-down the Defensive Player of the Year. She guards people and she gets after it.”

“And now she’s hitting her shots and getting the ball inside,” she continued. “She’s running the floor and she’s practicing harder. And she’s playing with confidence and feeling some urgency, which seniors do…she’s being a leader and doing a great job for us.”

Appel has been a dominant force on offense recently, earning her eighth and ninth double-doubles of the year last weekend while averaging 19 points and 13 rebounds over the two games. Those marks are both well above her season averages of 13.1 ppg and 9.6 rpg.

Against USC, she passed Nicole Powell’s school rebounding record, reaching a total of 1,153 boards.

Oddly enough, Appel may be developing yet another offensive tool as her college career winds down–better accuracy from outside the paint. The six-foot-four center took a pair of shots from the top of the key against the Trojans on Sunday, making one and narrowly missing the other.

“[The long shot is] definitely something I’ve been working on the past couple of weeks, I’ve been trying to develop that,” Appel said. “But I wouldn’t say that is my first option. But it is a good thing that I took two outside shots and made one of them, so that does kind of get that into the opponent’s mind that they have to step out.”

Appel, Gold-Onwude and the rest of the Cardinal women will look to continue building momentum tonight at 7 p.m., when they take on Washington in Seattle. They will face Washington State at noon on Sunday in Pullman.

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