Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Hecka Nneka Single-Handedly Beats Tennessee

There is a saying Stanford Women’s Basketball Head Coach Tara VanDerveer has been espousing all season; “Nneka is a woman playing among girls.” And that certainly was the case tonight when #4 Stanford met #6 Tennessee.

Nneka Ogwumike scored a career high 42 points and grabbed an eye-popping 17 boards to help her team win 97-80 over the Vols. We’ve also been hearing the same refrain all season that other people have to step up for Stanford besides Nneka and her sister Chiney, that we can’t be a one or two woman show. But when you score 42 points, that’s like two really good players having a great game, right?

The funny thing was Tennessee was the more athletic team. They were stronger, faster, could steal the ball at will and shot well (49.1% for the game). Yet Stanford came away with the win. They got just enough from everybody to compliment Nneka’s insane performance. Sophomore Toni Kokenis did do her part well, scoring a career high 26, 5 on three-pointers. In most games, it has been Nneka, then Chiney, then Toni scoring in descending order. Tonight against Tennessee Nneka had 42, Toni 26 and Chiney 14. So Nneka, Chiney and Toni had 82 of Stanford’s 97 total points.  Freshmen Taylor Greenfield added 2 three-pointers for 6 total and even three-point specialist Bonnie Samuelson silenced her critics that she couldn’t score one of those crazy shots with the game on the line. She got one, and made 2 free throws for a total of 5 critical points.

We do want to compliment the Tennessee team. One, they didn’t back down. Stanford would score a basket to please the crowd and Tennessee would march right back down the court and knock one down themselves. However when Stanford is scoring 3’s and your only scoring 2, you are going to find yourself in a deficit, as Tennessee did. Stanford made 9 of their threes to Tennessee’s 6.

And the Tennessee game plan was to trap and press, as Tara said they would see. And boy was Tennessee fast! When Stanford made slow, lazy passes, Tennessee was there to steal them. And for every loose ball, Tennessee hit the deck and hustled when Stanford players gave up on the ball heading out of bounds. They also knew whom to double team. Whenever Jos Tinkle and freshie Taylor Greenfield caught the ball in the trap, Tenn. immediately sent two players after them. Our freshmen were not used to their speed and got the ball stolen a lot (Amber Orrange). Stanford finally broke them down in the closing minutes, breaking their full court press and then getting some easy lay ups to pad the score, which is what you need to do against a Tennessee team as they can come back so quickly.

Tennessee also moved the ball quickly on offense and knew to pick Stanford guard Lindy LaRocque, getting her man an open run to the basket. And for some reason, Tara had them playing a zone on defense. Quick ball moment left the Tenn. wings open for wide-open looks or a back door sneaker behind the defense. It helped Stanford dig a hole early, falling behind by 9 before clawing back.

But we have Nneka and you don’t. Back to Hecka Nneka. So when Tennessee pressed Stanford, it took them 15-17 seconds to get the ball across the half court line. Then by the time Stanford got the ball to the free throw line there would be 5 seconds left. Not enough time to go through their whole offense where she stands there and she hands off here and she runs around the Cape of Good Hope… five seconds left they just threw it to Nneka and she scored it.

How did she score? Let us count the ways. She went one on one, she faked, she juked, she banked, she used her speed to blow to the basket or would pull up and shoot a jumper when they blocked her path, she drew contact and the foul, still scoring the basket, she out jumped everyone for the rebound and she calmly hit open shots when they gave her room. One time they just handed the ball to Nneka with about 3 seconds left and she just turned and shot a long 2, just inside the three-point line. Funny thing was, Nneka missed a lot of baskets in the first half, so her stat line reads 19-27. In fact, C and R felt Stanford was lucky to be up by 7 at the end of the half. Then the second half came along. At some point in the second half, Nneka made 11 shots in a row! She was just unstoppable.

We told you didn’t want to miss this historic game because of Tennessee coach Pat Summit, and it turned in to a historic performance by Nneka. It was amazing to behold live. She just could not be denied.

Ah, Pat Summit. Tennessee had some of their fans there dressed in orange, of course. But this game was unusual because many a Stanford fans wore the “We Back Pat” orange shirt with conflicting emotions. Dozens decided to honor Pat and her struggle with dementia and Alzheimer’s by wearing a netraul purple shirt that supported a “Walk for the Cure for Alzheimer’s. This way they can support the greatest women’s basketball coach and yet cheer for Stanford and not the Tennessee team.

The crowd was definitely on her side. Anticipation was high awaiting her entrance to Maples. When Pat came out, a warm welcome, standing ovation and holding of the “We back Pat” towels. (And big shout out to super fan K, who gave us one of his towels since they were gobbled up quickly. Thanks!). Tara and staff went over to hug her, and a video tribute from Tara has just played moments before.

It was a very classy thing to do but it definitely affected the crowd. At the UConn game last year, the fans were so fired up to cheer against Geno and the streak that they gave a lot of emotion to the Stanford team. The crowd gave them positive energy for every great play and a vocal voicing of when they felt robbed by bad calls. The crowd stayed on their feet practically the whole game. This crowd cheered the Tennessee team when they came out, was polite and reverent, but it was not helping the Cardinal. Many times Chiney exhorted the crowd to make some noise and give them some energy to the team. We didn’t need any reminders in the UConn game. It definitely was weird. Maybe that might explain a sluggish first half by Stanford. By the second half the warm glow had faded, and we even saw Pat berate the ref. We also felt embolden to heckle Pat, probably for the last time, all in good fun, of course.

Stafnord’s Mikaela Ruef was still out for this game and is listed out as “indefinitely” with plantar fasciitis. Jasmine Camp had an “undisclosed” foot injury, yet the foot was closed up in a boot and she was on crutches not putting any weight on it. Bummer.

C and R are so happy for Nneka. You can tell she is a senior and she wanted it. She played to the crowd, especially the Stanford football team in the house, and brought her own energy to the team. And when she got an assist from sister Chiney, she had a special smile. It really was wonderful to behold.

R said had she played like this against UConn, they would have won. However, the difference was she was in foul trouble and sat most of the first half of the UConn game. For this game, she played 19 of 20 minutes in the first and all of the second half. She stayed out of foul trouble in the first but got to 3 in the second and had to play smart, and you don’t go to Stanford unless you are smart. Several times we saw her pull up and refrain from contact against Tennessee and was able to stay in the game and single-handedly win it for her team, and her legendary coach, too.

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