W. Basketball: Finding a groove

Jan. 6, 2011, 1:35 a.m.

Their grueling non-conference season may have left the Stanford women scratching their heads at times, but with 2010 over, it’s hard not to argue that the Cardinal is hitting its stride. And with the conference season getting into full gear as it hosts a talented Arizona (11-2, 2-0 Pac-10) team tonight, the timing couldn’t be much better.

W. Basketball: Finding a groove
Senior guard Jeanette Pohlen, above, leads the No. 4 Cardinal in scoring (MASARU OKA/The Stanford Daily).

No. 4 Stanford (10-2, 1-0) has made a habit of scheduling plenty of top-25 opponents early in the season, and this year, the tough schedule left its mark on the Cardinal’s record with a pair of losses against DePaul and Tennessee. It isn’t often that Stanford, a winner of 10 straight conference titles, finds itself on the wrong end of a losing streak, even if it’s only two games.

“We definitely have one of the toughest schedules out there, and I think that’s something that definitely helps us grow, no matter the outcome,” said sophomore forward Joslyn Tinkle. “We did have a couple steps backward, but we really did learn from it. As a team, we’ve really improved since then, and I think playing these teams will help us in the long-run.”

Whatever Stanford needed to learn, it didn’t take long. The Cardinal shocked the nation with last week’s 71-59 upset over then-No. 1 Connecticut, which hadn’t lost in a record 90 contests (including a pair of Final Four victories over Stanford). That helped move Stanford from No. 9 to No. 4, single-handedly inspired a new T-shirt for fans and, most importantly, gave the soul-searching Cardinal a huge dose of optimism.

After Stanford’s roller coaster of a non-conference schedule, nobody on the team is more locked in than Jeanette Pohlen. The senior guard posted huge numbers over the break, including a career-high 31 points against UConn. Her offensive tear was enough to rocket her into first place on the team in points per game, with 16.8. She was named Pac-10 player of the week yesterday for her efforts against No. 4 Xavier, No. 1 UConn and California.

“She’s always been a solid, heady player for us,” Tinkle said. “But this year I feel like she’s been a lot more aggressive offensively, she’s done such good job and she’s fun to be out there with. A lot of us wouldn’t have expected all of that [scoring] from her, being in a tough spot to get as many points at guard. And it’s not like she’s taking every shot out there; she just really knows how to get open.”

But Pohlen has hardly done it alone. The Cardinal roster is nothing if not flexible this season, leaving head coach Tara VanDerveer with a veritable smorgasbord of lineup options on any given day. And she hasn’t been afraid to change things up—all but two of her players are averaging over 10 minutes per game.

On paper, the team might seem like it has too many options. But the Cardinal has embraced the reality of its roster, a team full of multitaskers.

“A lot of us are playing all over, and we’re really versatile,” Tinkle said. “And I think that’s kind of working in our favor…whether or not we know what our role is, playing here or there, I think it’s important that we know each other, our personalities, what we do best. I think that’s helped us improve our game as a whole, and take full advantage [of] what we have.”

As impressive as its victory against UConn was, Stanford still has plenty of dangerous teams to look out for in the Pac-10. Among the best of them is tonight’s opponent, Arizona.

The Wildcats, like Stanford, are among four teams in the conference with only one or two losses, and have defeated their last six opponents by an average margin of 19.2 points. That includes a 109-94 effort on New Year’s Eve against Oregon, which leads the conference in scoring with 89 points per game and had just two losses entering the game.

It’s been seven seasons since Arizona began 11-2 and six since it started the conference season with two straight wins.

Marks like those would be impressive in any situation, but compared to how Arizona was faring when it last faced Stanford, it’s downright surprising. The Wildcats were 13-13 when they hosted the Cardinal last February, a game they dropped, 75-48.

Stanford’s big hero from that matchup, junior forward Nnemkadi Ogwumike, might be missing from the lineup tonight. She left with a shoulder injury after scoring 14 against Cal on Sunday, and it isn’t clear if she will be limited in minutes tonight or out of the game altogether. The last time she faced the Wildcats, Ogwumike led her team with nine rebounds and added 15 points.

Four of the five Wildcat starters from that game are back this season, and three of them are getting plenty of minutes and leading the team in scoring. Senior forward Ify Ibekwe is in the lead with 15.5 points per game, with sophomore guard Davellyn Whyte right behind her at 14.8. Soana Lucet, a senior forward like Ibekwe, rounds out the trio with 13.0 points per game.

The team has added only two freshmen since last season, but even with many of the same players, this year’s Arizona squad should present a whole new challenge.

Stanford will tip off against the Wildcats tonight at 7 p.m. in Maples Pavilion.

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