Palo Alto Weekly

Sports - March 18, 2011

Stanford freshmen hope to make it a real party

A third NCAA women's basketball title in school history would be a fitting way to celebrate VanDerveer's 25 years at Stanford

by Keith Peters

In the 25 years that Tara VanDerveer has been head coach of the Stanford women's basketball team, she has accomplished everything there is to achieve — from winning national titles to having national players of the year and even winning an Olympic gold medal.

VanDerveer has achieved so much that it could fill a media guide, which in fact, it does.

In this, her silver anniversary year at Stanford, little has been discussed on how best to celebrate her quarter century of excellence. A simple party just won't do. Twenty five years needs something special, like an NCAA championship.

VanDerveer hasn't enjoyed one of those since 1992, which came on the heels of her first in 1990. Since then, Stanford has been close — losing in the title game in 2008 and 2010.

"We're very disappointed we didn't win a national championship," VanDerveer said after last season's 53-47 loss to undefeated Connecticut in the Final Four finale. "But, to be in three Final Fours — two national championship games in three years — you've got to knock on the door."

Stanford has done that four times.

"We've won two out of four times," VanDerveer said. "So, we need to work hard and get back."

The Cardinal women have done just that. They are 29-2, ranked No. 2 in the nation and will take a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament into Saturday's first-round date with No. 16 seed UC Davis (24-8) in Maples Pavilion at 3:30 p.m. Stanford has won 61 straight home games and is making its 24th straight appearance in the tourney.

The Stanford-UC Davis winner will play the winner of Saturday's first game (1 p.m.) between eighth-seeded Texas Tech (22-10) and ninth-seeded St. John's (21-10) on Monday at 6:30 p.m. All the games will be televised on ESPN2.

"Honestly, it's hard for me to believe this is really happening," said Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer. "This year has gone by so quickly. As a team, we know we can only play six more games together . . . It's really a special team and we're going to give it our absolute best shot."

Stanford has all the makings of another championship team. It has the senior leadership of Jeanette Pohlen and Kayla Pedesen, a solid junior guard in Lindy La Rocque, a standout junior forward in Nnemkadi Ogwumike and an equally standout freshman forward in Chiney Ogwumike.

When Stanford won its first NCAA title in 1990, it featured two seniors (guard Jennifer Azzi and forward Katy Steding), two juniors (forward Trisha Stevens and guard Sonja Henning) and a freshman (center/forward Val Whiting).

The 1992 championship team was actually younger, with juniors Molly Goodenbour, Chris MacMurdo and Whiting, sophomore Christy Hedgpeth and freshman Rachel Hemmer.

"Both those teams and this team, they have really good chemistry," VanDerveer said of the comparisons. "They play hard. The '90 team was very experienced. We had guards that pushed it, we really looked to run and we rebounded well. There were a lot of people on the '92 team who contributed. This (2011) is a good rebounding team, and this team is even bigger."

A key factor on all three teams can be traced to the freshman class, which had a large role in each team's success. Whiting was critical in '90, while Goodenbour, MacMurdo and Angela Taylor played supporting roles. In '92, Hemmer was the Pac-10 Freshman of the Year while playing a big role in that NCAA title. Current assistant coach Kate Paye was a freshman that year and contributed along with freshman Anita Kaplan.

That brings us to 2011 and the freshman class of Chiney Ogwumike, Toni Kokenis and Sara James. If Stanford gets to the Final Four in Indianapolis (April 3 and 5) and brings home a third gold trophy, the freshmen will have a say in it.

The 6-foot-3 Ogwumike has mirrored the 6-3 Whiting's contributions as a strong rebounder and able scorer. She is averaging 11.6 points (fourth on the team) and 7.8 rebounds (second to Pedersen's 7.9). Ogwumike has a team-leading 102 offensive rebounds, something that can't be overlooked when a national title is at stake. She's also shooting a team-leading .581 from the floor while starting 30 of 31 games.

"I'm excited about Chiney's improvement," VanDerveer said this week. "She has a ways to go (but) Chiney is a listener. She's extremely coachable, a competitor. She likes to play defense and likes to rebound. We need her out there. She has been a great addition to our team."

Kokenis also has been a great addition. She came into her own last weekend by scoring a career-high 17 points to spark the Cardinal to a 64-55 victory over UCLA in the championship game of the Pac-10 Tournament. Kokenis scored 10 points in the final 5:17 to help the Cardinal erase a nine-point halftime deficit.

Kokenis, like the freshmen guards in '90, comes off the bench.

"If I were someone on in our starting lineup, I would focus on how to stay in the game longer," VanDerveer said of Kokenis coming off the bench. "I love having that kind of spark plug off the bench."

While Ogwumike was the nation's No. 1 recruit and was named the Gatorade National Player of the Year, Kokenis wasn't as heralded despite scoring 2,031 points in her prep career at Hinsdale Central in Oak Brook, Ill.

"I definitely wanted to come in and help on defense," Kokenis said upon her arrival at school. "Use my speed and quickness to make things happen. It all starts on defense."

Stanford is allowing opponents just 54.9 points a game while scoring at a 79.9 clip per game for a margin of 25.1 points a game. The three Cardinal freshmen are averaging a combined 19.5 ppg.

Stanford, of course, is led by the big three of Pohlen, Pedersen and Nneka Ogwumike — among the 20 finalists for the John R. Wooden Award as the nation's top player. The tri-captains also are All-Region 8 nominees for the 2011 State Farm Coaches' All-America Team.

They are as indispensable as the '90 trio of Azzi, Steding and Stevens while accounting for a combined 44.5 points and 19 rebounds per game. Perhaps more than that, they are the heart and soul of a team that is primed and ready for what could be six more games in the season.

"Our goal for the season, like other teams, is a national championship," said Pohlen, wo is counting down the days to the end of her college career: "All four of the regionals will be tough. Either way, it'll be a long road ahead. No team in the NCAA tournament is going to be a piece of cake. We're going to have to beat everybody."

Now that's a proper 25-year celebration for VanDerveer.

NOTES: Stanford is 12-2 against the NCAA field and is looking to make its fourth straight trip to the Final Four . . . Stanford has played seven games and gone 5-2 against teams seeded 1, 2 or 3 . . . Stanford is riding a 23-game winning streak since losing consecutive road games in December at DePaul and Tennessee . . . The last time the Final Four was in Indianapolis, Baylor won the championship as a No. 2 seed . . . UCLA (27-4) earned a No. 3 seed in the Spokane Region, possibly setting up a fourth meeting between the Bruins and Cardinal in the Elite Eight. Other top seeds in the Spokane Region are No. 2 Xavier (28-2), which Stanford beat following its loss at Tennessee, No. 4 Kentucky (24-8), No. 5 North Carolina (26-8), No. 6 Iowa (22-8) and No. 7 Louisville (20-12). Iowa and Gonzaga (28-4) meet in the first round. The Bulldogs played Stanford tough at home earlier in the season and is one of the top scoring teams in the nation . . . Should the Cardinal advance from the first two rounds, it might meet the Tar Heels or Kentucky in the Sweet Sixteen.

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