Palo Alto Weekly

Sports - March 26, 2010

Stanford takes aim at playing even better

VanDerveer sees room for improvement against Georgia in the Sweet Sixteen

by Rick Eymer

As well as the Stanford women's basketball team played through the first two round of the NCAA tournament last weekend, coach Tara VanDerveer feels there is still more to come when the venue switches to the ARCO Arena in Sacramento Saturday night for the Regional championships.

The second-ranked and top-seeded Cardinal (33-1) meets No. 5 seed Georgia (25-8) at 6:04 p.m. in the regional semifinal. No. 3 Xavier (29-3) and No. 7 Gonzaga (29-4) meet in the other semifinal at 8:30 p.m.

Saturday's winners meet Monday night at 6:30 p.m. with a berth in the Final Four at stake.

"I think we can improve and come out in Sacramento and play even better," VanDerveer said. "In the NCAA tournament, obviously, you have to think one game at a time. You hope people are healthy, but your focus is one game, our team, what happens, happens."

The Cardinal reached the Sweet 16 by defeating UC Riverside, 79-47, in the first round, and Iowa, 96-63, in the second round — both games were held at Maples Pavilion, where Stanford owns a 46-game winning streak heading into next year.

Stanford and No. 23 Georgia have played in the NCAA tournament before, with the Cardinal winning three of the previous five postseason meetings. The teams are similar in that they both have veteran coaches, have both reached the championship game in their histories, and have each appeared in 24 (or more) NCAA tournaments.

"It's a terrific matchup," VanDerveer said. "They're a team that beat Tennessee. We will have our work cut out for us."

VanDerveer and Georgia's Andy Landers, in his 31st season with the Lady Bulldogs have a combined won-loss record of 1,622-462 (.778 winning percentage), including 108-47 in the postseason.

"We had a good crowd at Stanford and we've played at Georgia," VanDerveer said. "I know it's not Stanford but hopefully people will come up to Sacramento and there will be more Stanford red than Georgia red. We want that kind of atmosphere."

Because of the wealth of coaching experience, Georgia won't be intimidated by playing in a foreign environment. Women's basketball in the SEC gets a huge following, and playing on the road, in a hostile atmosphere, prepares a team for the NCAAs. Georgia is also 7-1 against teams in the RPI top 50 this season. Stanford is 11-1 against the RPI Top 50.

The Lady Bulldogs average 63 points a game and allow 54.5. Stanford scores at a 77.1 clip and allows 54. Georgia utilizes a pressing, swarming defense that forces turnovers and has a 2.2 turnover margin to Stanford's minus-0.9.

The Cardinal will need all their ball handlers at peak performance to wade through the myriad of traps, presses and defenses it will face.

Jeanette Pohlen and Ros Gold-Onwude will face most of the pressure, but Melanie Murphy, JJ Hones and Kayla Pedersen may be called upon.

Gold-Onwude is coming off a career game in which she scored 26 points, had five assists and played shut-down defense on Iowa's point guard.

"I hope she builds on that," VanDerveer said. "She really likes to play defense. Both she and Jeanette have been playing well. All the guards have been playing well from the Pac-10 tournament through this tournament."

Senior center All-American Jayne Appel said it was important to have the fan support and that winning the first two games at home should serve to jump start a deep run into the tournament.

"To play as well as our team played, it's a great feeling," she said. "It helps get the train going on the way to the national championship game."

Sophomore Nnemkadi Ogwumike, who supplanted Appel as the Pac-10 Player of the Year, has been getting all the (deserved) attention lately but when it comes to crunch time, Appel will have a big say in Stanford's success the rest of the way.

She's the Pac-10's all-time leading rebounder at 1,237, is third all-time in Stanford school history with 2,087 points (behind Kate Starbird and Candice Wiggins), first with 272 blocked shots and has 337 career assists (current assistant Kate Paye finished with 406), a remarkable feat for a post player.

Freshman post Joslyn Tinkle may also find herself in a critical situation. She's the backup plans for both Appel and Ogwumike should something happen, like foul trouble or an ankle sprain.

"Joslyn is getting valuable experience and, honestly, we need more from her," VanDerveer said. "We have 14 healthy players and they're all very important to our team's success."

Stanford reached its seventh Sweet 16 in the past 10 years and the 17th overall. The Cardinal hopes to play in its 14th Elite Eight, its ninth Final Four, and its fourth championship game. Adding national title number three, and the first in 20 years, would finish things nicely, thank you.

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