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Palo Alto Weekly

Sports - December 21, 2012

Stanford stays perfect; tough games ahead

by Rick Eymer

Don't look now but the Stanford women's basketball team is in the midst of its most important stretch of games of the season. The span of eight games that began with Wednesday's 53-49 victory over No. 21 South Carolina could very well dictate how the top-ranked Cardinal is perceived come NCAA tournament time.

Stanford (10-0) visits No. 10 Tennessee for a 1 p.m. nonconference meeting Saturday, and then has the privilege to host No. 2 Connecticut (Dec. 29) before opening Pac-12 play at undefeated No. 25 Colorado and Utah. Then it's a home-and-home series with No. 8 California before a visit to No. 12 UCLA.

The Cardinal should at least rack up a decent RPI rating along the way even if it stumbles once or twice, a distinct possibility.

"It's going to be a tough trip," Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said. "We're looking forward to it. We've already played the best team in the country (Baylor) and against the best player in the country (Baylor's Brittney Griner). I'm not sure if it can get much harder. We have to make sure we're ready."

To put it all in perspective, South Carolina was 10-0 before losing to Stanford. The six upcoming opponents took a combined 49-5 record into play Thursday. The Lady Vols, at 7-2, have the worst record of the bunch.

Tennessee owns the all-time series with Stanford, 22-7, though the Cardinal has won two of the past three. Stanford is 1-11 on the Lady Vols' home court, with that win coming in 1996.

"The No. 1 ranking gives us a great sense of confidence but we also view ourselves as the hunted," Stanford's Chiney Ogwumike said. "We also view ourselves as underrated. Tennessee, Connecticut, Baylor have all been ranked higher. We have to play with confidence."

Particularly in the case of Tennessee, where the lack of success could work against the Cardinal, even though the Lady Vols are playing without head coach Pat Summitt on the bench for the first time in nearly 30 years.

Coach Holly Warlick is no stranger to the Lady Vols. This is her first year as a head coach, but she spent the previous 27 as Summit's assistant.

"We know the history of the game," Ogwumike said. "We know the environment. We understand the competitive nature and we know it will be a crazy arena. We know it's sold out. We're looking forward to playing in front of a crowd like that."

Stanford doesn't get any kind of break when the Pac-12 schedule comes around. Colorado has an opportunity to remain undefeated before hosting the Cardinal. Utah has won eight of its first nine games.

This is the third time in program history, all since VanDerveer took over, that Stanford has started 10-0. The last time came in the 1991-92 season. The 1989-90 team opened the season 20-0. Stanford won national titles in 1990 and 1992.

Stanford had to consider itself a little bit lucky escaping with a victory over the Gamecocks, who also gave the Cardinal fits in last year's NCAA tournament.

"We had a target on our back and that's one of the things we have to expect when we come into games like this," said Ogwumike, who recorded yet another double-double with 21 points and 15 rebounds.

Stanford nearly let this one slip away. The Cardinal led the majority of the game before the Gamecocks grabbed a two-point edge with 2:32 remaining to play.

Ogwumike gave Stanford the lead with a go-ahead three-point play and South Carolina tied it when Aleighsa Welch hit one of two foul shots.

That's when Mikaela Ruef stepped in, stepped up and threw up a shot that just did get over the rim and into the basket, giving Stanford the lead for good.

"Coach says every possession counts and they counted tonight," said Ogwumike, who produced her Pac-12 leading eighth double-double.

The Gamecocks got within 51-49 late, but Stanford's Toni Kokenis, who scored 15 points, sealed it with two final foul shots. She made six straight down the stretch and was 7 of 7 in free throws overall.

"I'm proud of our team, and proud how Toni and Chiney really stayed with things," VanDerveer said. "You're in a very hostile environment, great crowd, great atmosphere."

Stanford is headed into another hostile environment this weekend.

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