W. Basketball: Closing out

March 10, 2010, 12:49 a.m.
W. Basketball: Closing out
Redshirt junior guard Melanie Murphy and the Stanford women’s basketball team capped off an undefeated Pac-10 season with a win over Cal, and now must prepare for the Pac-10 Tournament. (KYLE ANDERSON/The Stanford Daily)

Closing out an impressive regular season on Saturday afternoon, the Cardinal women bested rival Cal on the road to secure a perfect conference record, beating the Bears 63-48. Stanford managed the victory without the help of its star player, senior center Jayne Appel, as forwards Kayla Pedersen and Nnemkadi Ogwumike stepped up with 23- and 22-point efforts, respectively.

Whether or not it was a result of missing Appel, the No. 2 Cardinal (28-1, 18-0 Pac-10) had a hard time establishing an offensive rhythm and driving to the basket in its comfortable, though often sloppy, victory. The Stanford staff revealed that Appel had sprained her ankle in practice on Tuesday, and it remains unclear when the reigning Pac-10 Player of the Year will be able to return. Despite a large group of friends and family coming out to support Appel at Berkeley, her birthplace, she was sidelined with a large orthopedic boot on her right leg for the entire game.

After a solid season and a 5-1 record over the previous three weeks, the Bears (17-12, 11-7) had plenty of momentum and a lot to play for on Saturday, their annual Senior Day. A win against Stanford – who handily defeated the Bears at Maples Pavilion on Jan. 2, winning 79-58 – would have been a big confidence booster and helped to secure a berth in the NCAA Tournament. Despite winning the “Battle of the Bay” at home last season by a score of 57-54 to hand rival Stanford its only conference loss, the Bears were unable to repeat the upset.

While the final score might suggest otherwise, however, Cal hung tough in the opening minutes of the game. Stanford quickly found itself down 4-0 after a jumper from senior guard Alexis Gray-Lawson – Cal’s offensive leader on Saturday with 15 points – and did not lead until a Pedersen layup at 13:00 put her team up 8-6. That basket came in the midst of a 10-0 Cardinal run that put Stanford up 14-6 midway through the half.

Cal went scoreless for over six minutes during the stretch, and shot just 25.8 percent on the half. Outside the 10-0 outburst, the Cardinal offense did not look particularly impressive either, as Stanford opened the game going two-for-eight with two turnovers in four minutes, and shot 40 percent before halftime.

For both teams, solid defense contributed as much to the poor shooting in the first half as a lack of offensive coordination. Cal stepped up big on transition defense, intercepting passes and interrupting Stanford’s ability to set up on offense. Eliza Pierre, who finished with a game-high three steals for Cal, made a particularly impressive interception of a Lindy LaRocque pass, breaking quickly across the court to score an easy layup. Stanford, meanwhile, frustrated the Bears with its ability to quickly set up in the defensive zone, protecting the basket and forcing long-distance, low-percentage shots. Senior guard Rosalyn Gold-Onwude was particularly effective, holding Gray-Lawson (18.0 points per game) to four-for-13 shooting from the field. In Cal’s victory last season, Gray-Lawson singlehandedly dismantled the Cardinal with 37 points.

The Bears pulled within 20-17 on a pair of Gray-Lawson free throws with less than three minutes remaining in the half, but Stanford was able to establish a more comfortable 26-19 lead before heading to locker room. Junior guard Jeanette Pohlen nearly gave the Cardinal a 10-point lead with a desperate three-point attempt as time expired, but the shot fell short. Despite playing solid defense, Pohlen and Gold-Onwude struggled on offense, as Stanford’s pair of starting guards combined for a total of just three field goals on 19 attempts.

Both teams edged a bit closer toward their normally solid offensive production in the second half, but neither was able to put together any streaks of strong shooting. Stanford had the better resurgence, however, with the tone set immediately by an Ogwumike layup that gave her a double-double. She finished the game with 22 points and a game-high 14 rebounds.

 Freshman forward Joslyn Tinkle, playing a career-high 34 minutes in Appel’s absence, also made important contributions down the stretch. The Missoula, Mont. native posted Stanford’s first three-pointer of the game with 13:33 remaining on a wide-open shot from the corner to make it 39-27. The Card was just 2-13 from beyond the arc on Saturday, with both baskets coming from Tinkle. She finished with eight points and nine rebounds.

Following Tinkle’s first three, Ogwumike took initiative on offense and helped the Cardinal to pull away. She scored a jumper soon afterward that gave her a game-high 17 points at the time, and then made a decisive layup to make it 45-29. She turned to her teammates and pumped her fist emphatically upon landing on the court, sensing that a perfect conference record was becoming more and more certain.

Stanford never let Cal pull within 10 points for the remainder of the game, despite a passionate effort from the Bears as time wound down. While the Cardinal had already secured its 10th consecutive outright or shared conference title several weeks ago, the victory gave Stanford the first perfect Pac-10 season by any team since the Cardinal last went undefeated in 2002. Stanford has now won 35 of its last 38 meetings with the Bears.

The season might be over, but the Cardinal’s ambitions are anything but. Stanford’s next step on its quest for a third consecutive Final Four appearance and its first national championship since 1990 will take it to Los Angeles, where it will play as the No. 1 seed in the Pac-10 Tournament. The Cardinal, who won the tournament last season, will open up against either Arizona or Washington State on Friday.

Of course, Stanford’s ultimate goal is to earn a national title. The Cardinal nearly achieved that goal just last season, but was defeated by Connecticut in the semifinals. The No. 1 Huskies have not lost since that game, and are the only team to defeat Stanford this season. If the Cardinal reaches the title game, there is a good chance they will be facing off against an all-too-familiar foe.

Stanford will begin its NCAA Tournament run either March 20 or 21.

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