Women’s Basketball: Elite Eight

March 29, 2010, 12:45 a.m.

Women's Basketball: Elite Eight
Redshirt senior Rosalyn Gold-Onwude made a statement in her last game at Maples, hitting 6-6 on three-pointers in Stanford’s NCAA second-round demolition of Iowa on Mar. 22. (KYLE ANDERSON/The Stanford Daily)

Red-hot Cardinal prepares for No. 3 seed Xavier

While most students were enjoying post-exam relaxation over Spring Break, the women’s basketball team has been busy.

On Saturday, No. 1 seed Stanford (34-1, 18-0 Pac-10) erased an early deficit to crush No. 5 seed Georgia (25-9, 9-7 SEC) 73-36 in the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tournament, keeping its season alive and setting up a regional final clash with No. 3 seed Xavier (30-3, 14-0 Atlantic-10) at the ARCO Arena in Sacramento at 6 p.m. Monday night.

Since classes finished, the team has brought the Pac-10 Tournament trophy back to the Farm and has breezed through the first two rounds of the NCAAs.

Stanford’s Elite Eight status and conference championship have emerged from a season of both dominating wins and lingering injuries.

The Card only lost one game throughout the regular season, against undefeated UConn, but struggled to find a rhythm in the first half of the Pac-10 Conference season. Injuries to guards took their toll, and after an off-season knee surgery, All-American senior center Jayne Appel had not yet returned to top form.

The secrets to the current strength of the team, however, lay in those difficult weeks.

Pac-10 Co-Defender of the Year and redshirt senior Rosalyn Gold-Onwude stepped up to deliver the strongest season of her collegiate career, while sophomore forward Nnemkadi Ogwumike terrorized defenders in a breakout year that brought her both the Pac-10 Player of the Year and the Pac-10 Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player awards.

By the midpoint of the conference season, the team had left its serious problems behind. Appel came alive, putting in a streak of double-double performances and lending a tougher edge to the Card, though she has had reduced playing time in the last few contests due to a sprained ankle.

“It’s a lot about Jayne [Appel],” said Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer after Saturday’s game against Georgia. “Jayne to me is the hub of that wheel. She can pass and she makes everyone look so good.”

In the first two rounds of the NCAAs, any doubts that may have persisted about the Cardinal’s guard play were blown away. Junior guard Jeanette Pohlen shone brightly in the first game against UC-Riverside, attacking the basket to hit four three-pointers and score 16 points, and a fired-up Gold-Onwude followed this with a career-defining last game at Maples, hitting 6-6 on three-pointers in the first half to leave Iowa stunned.

In the third round, it was junior forward Kayla Pedersen’s turn to shine. Pedersen may not have grabbed quite as many headlines as some of her fellow starters this year, but she showed her determination and fighting spirit as she dived onto the floor to trap a loose ball between her legs to stifle a Bulldog attack in the second period.

“Our whole team is still hungry,” Pedersen said. “We’re not satisfied.”

While not one Georgia player scored double digits, all of the big three Cardinal forwards and Pohlen did. Pedersen and Ogwumike each picked up yet another double-double this season (13 points and 15 rebounds, and 11 points and 11 rebounds, respectively) and the forwards dominated to score 42 points in the paint.

“They’re really good scorers,” said Georgia head coach Andy Landers, “but the thing that separates their bigs – Stanford may be bigger than everyone else and they shoot it well – they pass it, I think, better than anyone else’s bigs. This is an excellent passing basketball team.”

Incisive passing has been key to the Cardinal’s success this season, breaking through defenses, and leading to 19 team assists on Saturday.

“Our guards did well getting us the ball and dishing down low,” Appel said. “They gave us point-blank shots and it was our job to put them in.”

It is a tactic that works and something that Stanford will hope to continue to do in the short time left in the season.

“Ultimately, we are going to go into our posts,” Pohlen said. “They brought us here and they are going to take us very far.”

This confidence in each other seems to have been well placed. With almost five minutes gone in the first half on Saturday, the Cardinal was four points behind the Lady Bulldogs, but from there on in it was all Stanford. Georgia scored just seven more points in the first period to the Card’s 33.

The second half was more of the same, and the 36 points that the Lady Dogs managed to score against Stanford was the lowest total that any team has ever scored against the Cardinal in the NCAAs.

Next up are the two towering forwards of Xavier: redshirt junior Amber Harris, standing at 6-foot-5, and junior Ta’Shia Phillips at 6-foot-6 – a full two inches taller than either Appel or Pedersen. Together they lead the Musketeers in both points and rebounds, and hit double-doubles in Xavier’s defeat of Gonzaga (14 points and 10 boards, and 22 points and 14 boards, respectively).

“I think it will be really tough on Monday night, but who knows?” VanDerveer said. “Georgia coming into it, they beat Tennessee, they’re 16-0, they’ve played against really top teams and it was our night [Saturday].”

So far Stanford has managed to secure comfortable victories and keep its 24-game winning streak going. But this is the NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Championship and with each step toward the final game, the opposition will get tougher.

“It does get harder as you go,” Ogwumike said, “but if we continue to prepare the way we like to prepare and be ready for the game, I think we’ll be just fine. We’ll take it one game at a time as we always do the whole year.”

There are two all-but-unstoppable freight trains on a collision course across the top of the NCAA bracket. Occupying the top two positions in the AP and ESPN/USA Today polls since the start of the season, No. 1 Connecticut and No. 2 Stanford seem destined for another rematch. The Huskies have won by an average lead of 49.3 points in the first three rounds, and the Cardinal by 32.7.

The recent history of these two teams is inextricably linked. In its last 56 games, Stanford has lost to only one team: UConn, twice. The last time Connecticut lost to anyone? When the Card knocked it out of the Final Four a full two years ago.

The Big Dance is all about upsets, but Stanford and UConn may find themselves squaring off against each other for the championship game in the Alamodome.

Stanford faces Xavier tonight in the Sacramento Regional Final at 6 p.m. and then UConn (36-0, 16-0 Big East) will play No. 3 seed Florida State (29-5, 12-2 SEC) in the Dayton Regional Final on Tuesday.

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