Palo Alto Weekly

Sports - March 11, 2011

Pac-10 tourney a start

Stanford begins title defense as tuneup for NCAA tournament

by Rick Eymer

Competitors can only watch so much basketball before their nerve endings start to tingle and they start fidgeting for some action and grow antsy to get on the court and do a little playing themselves.

The top-seeded and second-ranked Stanford women's basketball could only watch the first two days of the Pac-10 tournament at the Galen Center on the campus of USC. They earned a double bye, with second-seed and seventh-ranked UCLA, because of their success over the course of the regular season.

The Cardinal (27-2) won't be playing at Galen, though. The semifinals and finals move over to the Staples Center and join the fun with the men's tournament.

It will have been eight days before Stanford plays a game again, and it didn't know the opponent until about 8 p.m. Thursday. That left about 16 hours to prepare.

Stanford plays the noon game Friday and it's almost guaranteed that the opponent will have clinched a 20-win season and will be motivated to add a 'good win' to its resume for the NCAA committee to consider.

The Cardinal likely will face either Arizona (19-10) or USC (18-11) while the Bruins (26-3) with meet either Arizona State (19-9) or California (15-14).

The winners will meet Saturday (11:30 a.m.) for the championship.

"I don't see any downside," Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said of the extra rest. "We're one of the few conferences who play a double round-robin and, as it is, playing back-to-back games is new for us. You will never play on consecutive games in the (NCAA) tournament."

Whichever team survives the first two days at the Galen Center will have to pack up and move to the Staples Center for the showdown with the Cardinal. No team will have the advantage of having been on the court before.

"We're moving into a new arena and it's a great situation for us," said VanDerveer, who was voted Pac-10 Coach of the Year earlier in the week, the 11th time she's been so honored.

Stanford enters the weekend as the tournament favorite and Oregon State coach Scott Rueck sees no reason to argue with that.

"As good as the teams are in this conference, they are an elite team," Rueck said. "They don't have a weakness and they are so relentless. They are gearing up for a long run this month. It is March Madness and you do have to play the game. But, I think they are that much better."

Staples Center becomes the fourth venue to host the women's basketball championships, following Oregon's MacArthur Court, the HP Pavilion in San Jose and the Galen Center.

The week-long break (it's also dead week on the Stanford campus) can only help a player like junior Nnemkadi Ogwumike, who returned to the lineup in the regular season finale after missing a couple of games with a sprained ankle.

"Nneka is ready for a breakout tournament," said VanDerveer. Those are not exactly the words opposing coaches want to hear. Ogwumike was the Pac-10 Player of the Year last season, though she joined Freshman of the Year Chiney Ogwumike, and seniors Jeanette Pohlen and Kayla Pedersen on the 15-player all-Pac-10 team.

Pohlen was voted the conference Player of the Year this time around.

"First and foremost Jeanette has really improved," VanDerveer said. "She's still working on a lot but she has come a long way with her leadership and her ability to run the offense."

Pohlen, who was turned into a point guard last year after injuries depleted the position, rose to the occasion this season. She helped freshmen like the younger Ogwumike and Toni Kokenis blend into the system and got them involved.

"Chiney and Toni are two freshmen who have stepped up," VanDerveer said. "Melanie Murphy and Lindy La Rocque have also improved and we're getting contributions from Sarah Boothe and Josyln Tinkle."

With the possibility of up to five teams with at least 20 wins, the semifinals could be a little more competitive than a quick glance would indicate. As for any Pac-10 team other than Stanford and UCLA reaching the NCAA party, VanDerveer said Arizona State, Arizona and USC are all worthy.

"It depends on who wins the tournament," VanDerveer said. "UCLA and ourselves are a lock, Arizona State has some good wins, Arizona is coming on strong and USC is certainly deserving. I don't know what others say but the Pac-10 has done a great job of preparing us for the NCAA tournament. We have good teams in our conference."

California has a legitimate chance to reach the WNIT tournament, though the Bears likely would need to win at least one game in Los Angeles this week.

After securing its 11th consecutive Pac-10 regular-season title and its second straight undefeated conference season with a 74-51 victory over California, VanDerveer gave her team three days off before refocusing on the road ahead.

"We're rested, excited and working hard," VanDerveer said. "We're looking forward to the tournament."

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