LOS ANGELES – Defining games.
There are a few of them every season for every team, games in which you find out where you are as a team, how far you’ve come, how much farther there is to go.
Sunday at Pauley Pavilion, No. 3 Stanford taking on No. 9 UCLA.The Bruins were looking to grab a share of the lead in the Pac-10 standings, looking to grab of share of Stanford’s top 5 national stature and prove that they indeed belong among the “elite”.
But in a 67-53 loss, in which the Cardinal dominated the second half after the two teams played to a 28-28 tie at the half, UCLA fell short of all of the above.
Playing in front of the biggest crowd to watch a women’s game at Pauley in 13 years, UCLA missed a big opportunity.
Stanford (24-2, 15-0) played for the first time this season without junior forward Nneka Ogwumike – the reigning Pac-10 Player of the Year. Nneka Ogwumike sprained her ankle Friday night at USC and Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer made a game-day decision to sit her leading scorer.
But the Cardinal picked up the slack, and that further defined the Cardinal in the mind of VanDerveer.
“Nneka’s dad has a saying ‘Every disappointment is a blessing’,” VanDerveer said. “We were disappointed Nneka couldn’t play. We want her to play and to be healthy. But as soon as it was clear that she wasn’t going to play, I was excited to see what different people would do. I told our team that before the game. I said ‘I’m going to learn a lot about our competitiveness, about how who really wants to be out there.’ This is a tough game to fill in for. There are a lot of other games that would be easier.”
Nneka’s younger sister Chiney continues to impress, finishing with 18 points and 15 rebounds in 37 minutes on the floor. She was 10 of 12 from the free-throw line.
Senior Kayla Pedersen didn’t have her best offensive day (4 of 12 from the floor), but ended up with 13 points and 11 rebounds and some huge plays down the stretch.
And freshman reserve guard Toni Kokenis capped the best weekend of her college career with 13 points of 5 of 8 shooting to go with three steals.
“We affectionately call our freshmen babies and our babies grew up today,” VanDerveer said. “Toni and Chiney had fabulous games.”
UCLA (22-3, 12-2) could well get another shot at Stanford in the Pac-10 Tournament finals, but if the Bruins hope to win, they will have to solve their biggest problem against Stanford in two games – the inability to knock down shots. In the first game between the two teams, a 64-38 Stanford win, UCLA shot 29.4 percent.
This time, the Bruins shot 31.1 percent. They were 19 of 61 from the field, attempting 11 more field-goals than the Cardinal. UCLA had two scorers in double figures – senior guard Darxia Morris who finished with 14 points, but only three in the second half, and junior forward Jasmine Dixon. Dixon, doubled the entire game, ended up with 10 points and 12 rebounds, but was just 3 of 13 from the floor.
UCLA wanted to disrupt Stanford, but Stanford’s size makes that tough. Stanford turned the ball over 13 times. But the Cardinal were able to hit enough outside shots and get the ball inside to take advantage of their superior size.
“Basically, you’ve got to make shots,” said UCLA coach Nikki Caldwell. “Jasmine struggled offensively, but we had some look from our guards and you’ve got to knock those down. And you’ve got to knock those down, and you’ve got to make lay-ups. We blew probably 20 lay-ups as well.”
Caldwell was asked what still separates Stanford from her team.
“Teaching our kids how to compete for 40 and not just be complacent to be in a game,” Caldwell said. “It’s a different mentality to convey here, one that they are grasping slowly, but one that every game we are trying to implement. Coming from a program like Tennessee, you play every day for a championship. You don’t do anything but practice every day and play for a championship. When you want to play with the big dogs, your big dogs have got to show up.”
The Cardinal are No. 3 for now.
Baylor’s loss to Texas Tech on Saturday opens the door for the Cardinal to move up into the top two in the national rankings. Tomorrow’s AP ranking will probably look like this: 1. Connecticut (with one loss) and 2. Stanford (the Cardinal with two losses despite the head-to-head matchup).
Stanford’s conference win streak moves to 53.
And VanDerveer may have more opportunity to rest Ogwumike for the stretch. Next week’s home set includes Oregon State and Oregon and neither team seems worthy of the risk if Ogwumike’s right ankle isn’t quite ready to go.
In the meantime, the Cardinal can rest in the comfort that they continue to define themselves as national title contenders.
“Honestly, I had a lot of confidence today going into the game, no matter who was going to start,” Pedersen said. “I think we were ready. Every single person out there was ready to battle and do what they needed to do.”