Palo Alto Weekly

Sports - April 8, 2011

Only questions remain after Final Four flop

Lots of positives remain, once Stanford can get over its frustrating loss to eventual national champ Texas A&M

by Rick Eymer

Questions will always remain. It's the life of a coach at any level. It's human nature to look back with clear 20-20 vision when things don't happen to work out the way they are supposed to unfold.

Despite a record of success that ranks among the finest in the nation, despite a list of accomplishments that would fill a large book, the Stanford women's basketball team might be judged on the final 10 seconds of its last game of the season.

This would be unfair and disrespectful to a program that has provided so much glory, so many fabulous athletes and so much enjoyment.

There's not much else the 2011 Stanford senior class needed to accomplish to take its rightful place in Cardinal lore. Winning a national championship was the final frontier, and now that's off the table.

Texas A&M rallied from a 10-point deficit in the final six minutes last Sunday, winning it when Tyra White drove the length of the court to give the Aggies the go-ahead layup and a 63-62 victory over second-ranked Stanford.

Ah yes, reminders of Jeanette Pohlen's race down court in Sacramento last year to beat the buzzer, and crush Xavier's upset hopes.

Yet we still question. What not defend the inbound pass? What didn't someone stop the ball? Was there a plan for after Nnemkadi Ogwumike's go-ahead basket? Why go for a Hail Mary pass with so many good long range shooters on the team?

What happens if Chiney Ogwumike and Melanie Murphy don't foul out? If a couple more free throws were made? Were the right people on the court at the end?

No answers will found here, simply because they are not the right questions. How long does Stanford have to be reminded of being the only team in NCAA basketball history to lose to a No. 16 seed in the first round, and on its home court to boot? That was the year Kristin Folkl and Vanessa Nygaard, two of the team's top three scorers, were injured in the days leading up the first round.

How many remember Candice Wiggins being called for a charge in the waning seconds of an NCAA game against LSU? How many remember Krista Rappahahn making a 3-pointer from the corner after taking the pass from Wiggins, considered the greatest to play in a Cardinal uniform?

Sure, it's been nearly 20 years since Stanford won a national title. Texas A&M never even reached a national championship game until this season. Other programs are still waiting for a chance.

What if Skylar Diggins chose Stanford over her hometown team of Notre Dame (reportedly her final two choices)? We would have missed Ros Gold-Onwude's startling late-season performances if that had happened.

Stanford (33-3) got 31 points from Ogwumike and 11 from Pohlen in the semifinal against A&M, but blew the late lead and went home empty-handed from the Final Four for the fourth consecutive year.

"I thought we played very well to get the lead," Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said. "We had to do some things that we don't have to do all season long against anyone else."

VanDerveer became one of the most honored coaches of all-time, highlighted by her selection into the Naismith Hall of Fame. She'd trade it all in for a chance at the national title though.

The Cardinal, which had its 27-game winning streak snapped, was the first team in this year's NCAA tournament to score more than 50 points against Texas A&M. That's little consolation though.

Stanford will be back. Players like Ogwumike, her sister Chiney Ogwumike, Lindy La Rocque, Michaela Ruef and Sarah Boothe will most certainly allow the Cardinal to remain a national title contender.

For the moment, the future remains a mystery waiting to happen. Kayla Pedersen and Pohlen, with Hannah Donaghe and Ashley Cimino, played with all the heart, guts, blood and character for which any coach would appreciate.

"It's hard," said Pedersen, who had 10 rebounds to finish her career with 1,266, surpassing Jayne Appel's all-time school and Pac-10 career record. "I mean, it's an awful feeling. The hardest part isn't losing the game, it's leaving these players."

They join others like Appel, Wiggins, Kate Starbird and Nicole Powell as among the school's best and who never tasted victory in the final game of the season.

Pedersen, Pohlen and Murphy will not return. In their place will be incoming freshmen Amber Orrange and Bonnie Samuelson, two McDonald's All-Americans.

Can Orrange be the quick point guard that Stanford has missed over the years, or will that be Toni Kokenis?

Samuelson averaged 24 points a game and set all kinds of state scoring and free throw records. She was one of six finalists for Ms. Basketball in California.

Orrange stands 5-foot-8 and is left-handed. One report suggests she's able to accomplish what is needed at the moment, with the range of a perimeter shooter and the ability to create her own shot. She's not afraid of contact.

Samuelson may be the next Pedersen, a 6-2 wing player with shooting touch and the ability to score in transition. She won't need to be a tough rebounder with the Ogwumike sisters likely ready to dominate the paint again next year.

The Pac-10 changed a little bit on the coaching scene. Nikki Caldwell, the conference Coach of the Year in 2010, left for LSU. Former Xavier coach Kevin McGuff (214-73 record) will be at Washington. He gave up the final four years of his contract with the Musketeers to travel west.

Caldwell depended on four seniors to carry the Bruins to their finest season. It's not all bad though as first team all-Pac-10 Jasmine Dixon is slated to return, along with a highly-regarded recruiting class of four players, though that could change depending on the coaching situation.

Stanford will begin anew in its quest for a third national championship with new challenges ahead and an old coaching style that seems to work.

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