Palo Alto Weekly

Sports - April 6, 2012

Hoop highs and lows in postseason

Cardinal men's championship in the NIT overshadowed women's Final Four setback

by Rick Eymer

This is a story about expectations and things looking different in hindsight. The Stanford men's basketball exceeded nearly everyone's expectations while more was expected of the Cardinal women.

Seniors Josh Owens, Andrew Zimmerman, Jarrett Mann and Jack Trotter ended their Stanford careers as champions of the National Invitation Tournament, playing in more games (37) than any other Cardinal men's team in school history. The record-setting game was a 75-51 rout of Massachusetts in last week's NIT title game at New York's Madison Square Garden as Stanford finished 26-11.

Seniors Nnemkadi Ogwumike, Lindy La Rocque and Grace Mashore finished with four straight trips to the NCAA Final Four, only to fall to the eventual national champion each time, including to Baylor, 59-47, last Sunday inside Denver's Pepsi Center while finishing 35-2.

The Stanford men opened the season by winning 11 of their first 13 games and ended by winning seven of their final nine. It was that 6-7 mark in the middle 13 games that led to lowered expectations.

The Cardinal women had won 32 in a row, and lost just once, before meeting Baylor. Ogwumike was performing like one of the top players in the nation, setting an enormous standard.

Cardinal men's coach Johnny Dawkins finally saw things fall into place during the postseason run, as guards Aaron Bright, a sophomore, and freshman Chasson Randle rose to championship caliber and Owens was playing consistently well and most other players chipped in with inspired moments, including sophomores Anthony Brown and Dwight Powell.

"You can't substitute for winning a tournament," Dawkins said. "You have to do it. These guys can reflect on that. Expectations will grow and we'll have to manage those. It's important to win a championship because once you've done it, you understand what you have to do to get there again."

Stanford women's coach Tara VanDerveer devised a nice strategy to counter 6-foot-8 national player of the year Brittney Griner but, by winning that battle, Stanford lost the war.

"Ultimately I think it was kind of difficult for us to really figure out what we wanted to do on offense," Stanford All-American Nneka Ogwumike said. "I think we were too worried about her."

(Flashback to the 1997 men's NCAA tournament and Stanford's game plan against Wake Forest's Tim Duncan, which resulted in a Cardinal upset. The Cardinal sent wave after wave of bodies to tangle with the 6-foot-11 player of the year. There were 44 fouls called in the game and it was even more physical than that would indicate).

When Ogwumike finally attacked Griner, she enjoyed modest success.

"We weren't able to run our offense the same way," VanDerveer said. "You just can't make passes that you usually make. You can't attack in the same way you're used to attacking."

The second-ranked Cardinal fought bravely, but its fifth straight trip turned out like all the others. Stanford is still looking for its first national title since 1992, despite reaching the title game in 2010 and 2008.

Ogwumike finished with 22 points, nine rebounds and played with four fouls during crunch time. Chiney Ogwumike already was on the bench, her season over after fouling out trying to deal with Griner and company.

Stanford had its school-record 32-game winning streak snapped but will begin next season with several other streaks intact, including a 79-game home winning streak and 78 straight wins over a Pac-12 opponent.

"I look back and reflect on what it took for us to get here, and I would have rather gone down with my team than up with any other team," Nneka said. "But when it comes down to the game, if you look at it, yeah, we were 20-for-60, that's a lot. And I know I didn't make one 3, and I shot five of them."

Does Stanford have what it takes to make a sixth straight trip?

Nneka Ogwumike will be playing in the WNBA a year from now but VanDerveer will have plenty of firepower to make another run.

Chiney Ogwumike, an All-American, returns along with the vastly improved Joslyn Tinkle, Amber Orrange and a dependable group of role players.

Stanford missed Jasmine Camp and Alex Green, two highly prized freshmen who were lost for the season due to injuries.

The Cardinal will be bringing in 6-3 post Alyson Beebe, who is expected to be fully recovered from a torn ACL nearly a year ago, and 6-5 Tess Picknell, who is known for her shot-blocking ability.

Chiney, Toni Kokenis, Orrange and Tinkle give Stanford plenty of experience. Bonnie Samuelson and Taylor Greenfield will have a year of experience and if one of the two incoming freshmen can make an immediate contribution, then perhaps reservations are in order for New Orleans next April.

The men's future also looks more than just Bright. A healthy Powell, a productive Andy Brown and the addition of size next year make for exciting times around Maples Pavilion.

"He can be a terrific player," Dawkins said of Powell. "He has so much potential and he's just starting to tap into it. He had a tough year because of the injuries but he's getting healthy and the sky is the limit for what he can do in a Cardinal uniform."

Rosco Allen and Grant Verhoeven, incoming freshmen, are both 6-foot-9 centers and Christian Sanders is a 6-4 guard who can play the point and shoot lights out. The three current high school seniors will likely press returning players for playing time.

Bright, Randle and Anthony Brown figure to provide the majority of offense, while Powell is athletic enough to both post up and pull up.

John Gage and Josh Huestis also figure to get plenty of opportunities as Stanford looks to make the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2008.

Bright was named the NIT's MVP, joining Adam Keefe (1991) in that regard.

"I've been telling everybody it's great for next year, too," Bright said. "It's great for our seniors to go out like that and hopefully it carries into the offseason for us and we'll just continue to work hard. We know what it takes to win the tournament now. We won five in a row, and I think we are going to use this experience for next year and making a run at the March Madness."

The NIT title also allowed Dick Davey, Dawkins' top assistant and former long-time Santa Clara head coach, to go out a winner.

"We played one of our best all-around games on the biggest stage," Dawkins said. "This is great for the seniors and great for coach Davey."

Davey, who announced his retirement from basketball earlier in the season, was given his championship trophy by Carroll Williams, for whom Davey served as an assistant coach at Santa Clara before assuming the head job there.

Stanford became the second team to play in the final of the preseason and postseason NIT in the same season. In the NIT Season Tip-Off in November, the Cardinal let a late lead slip away against Syracuse.

"It doesn't feel real," Stanford senior Andrew Zimmerman said. "When you end the season with a win you want to keep it going forever. This is something we can carry with us the rest of our lives. You can't take this away."

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