Saturday, November 25, 2006

Parker, Tennessee defense too much for Cardinal

For 10 years now, Stanford has lost every which way to Tennessee. There have been close games and blowouts, nail-biters and yawners, contests that agonizingly just slipped away from Stanford and others where the Cardinal never had a grip.

Friday's 77-60 loss at Thompson-Boling Arena was, obviously, of the rout variety. Sure, there were moments when Stanford made mini-runs, but never did you really think the Cardinal were going to pull the upset.

And it's fair to say that everyone (except the Orange Nation and Stanford-haters) was a bit disappointed with this dud. It was supposed to be one of the marquee games of the nonconference season, but it didn't pan out. It was fun to see just how spectacularly dominant Tennessee's Candace Parker can be, and also watch freshman Jayne Appel's first "big" game for Stanford.

But this wasn't the matchup it was hoped to be. Then again, Tennessee-Stanford really hasn't been a "rivalry," if you want to be brutally frank.

Stanford last beat Tennessee on Dec. 15, 1996, in Knoxville, Tenn. It was one of 10 games that Tennessee lost that 1996-97 season -- not that that ended up mattering. Tennessee still won the program's fifth NCAA title in 1997.

That was the last season of the team Stanford fans are still pining over -- the days when Kate Starbird, Jamila Wideman, Vanessa Nygaard, Olympia Scott, Charmin Smith, Heather Owen and Naomi Mulitauaopele were all together. That was the group that beat Tennessee. Later, coach Tara VanDerveer called Kristin Folkl, who was busy that December leading Stanford to another NCAA volleyball title, and asked her to come back to the hoops team.

She did, and the Cardinal made their third consecutive Final Four … and lost in the semifinals for the third consecutive year … and that's still as sad a locker room as I have ever been in.

Yeah, a full decade. Wow, where does the time go? That's how long it has been for the Cardinal in this "Tennessee desert," having lost 11 in a row to the Orange Crush. All but one of those 11 has been in November/December. That other was the hardest loss, coming in the Elite Eight in 2004. In all, the Cardinal is 4-19 against Pat Summitt's crew.

I can see, though, why VanDerveer might sound a bit miffed whenever asked about this. After all, there is a very easy way to stop losing to Tennessee.

Stop scheduling Tennessee.

But VanDerveer is not going to do that, because there really isn't any down side to playing Tennessee in the nonconference season. Sure, it can be frustrating for the Cardinal … it is frustrating … but it's also a great way to figure out what your problems are.

The peanut gallery will point out that BYU already did Stanford that favor, beating the Cardinal 55-52 in the Preseason WNIT -- at Maples Pavilion, no less. But playing Tennessee usually exposes every flaw, and that happened Friday.

Indeed, this Stanford team has issues to fix if it's to make a Final Four run this season, which it is capable of doing. VanDerveer talked Friday about All-American Candice Wiggins "pressing" a bit too much; even so, Wiggins had 18 points.

As big as the Cardinal are, Tennessee still dominated the boards 37-26. Appel was the star for Stanford with 23 points. But her getting single coverage was what Tennessee was willing to give up as it pretty much shut down senior post players Brooke Smith and Kristin Newlin, who combined for six points and 3-for-10 shooting from the field.

What is the main thing this game tells us about Tennessee? That Parker is completely in charge of the group now on the floor, and that she's more than good enough to help her team overcome foul problems her teammates might be having.

Summitt said it was Parker's best all-around game; she had 25 points, nine rebounds, five blocks and four steals. Gaudy as those numbers are, though, even they don't quite tell you how determined Parker -- who added the fourth dunk of her NCAA career, as well -- looked, though: like she is just not going to allow Tennessee to lose.

As Summitt said afterward, "We lean on her a lot. I expect a lot from her every game. I see the good, but I also see the possessions that she takes off. She limited those this game. She really came to play."

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