Stanford win: preparation was the key

Whenever Stanford and UConn play, the outcome could go either way. Last night was no different, except that for the first time in two years, eight months and three weeks, it was the Cardinal in the winning column.

Stanford came out on fire and took an early lead, but it was more than just energy that kept them ahead for the entire game: it was preparation. Cardinal players double- and triple-teamed Maya Moore, and they anticipated her every move. Moore’s shots and passes were blocked, she was screened out of rotations, and on one defensive assignment Stanford players had pushed her back five feet from the pass.

The Cardinal disrupted the Husky offense. When they tried to execute, a Stanford player was there. It threw them off their shot, and practically shut down their drives to the basket.

As the game unfolded, it became exceedingly apparent how much UConn game tape Coach Tara VanDerveer and her staff had watched to prepare for this matchup – how much planning and strategizing they had done. This was no accidental win: it was clinical, deliberate.

UConn made a few runs, as any good team would. But Stanford kept its composure and buckled down. Even freshman Chiney Ogwumike, who was bouncing from side to side like a prizefighter when she first got in the game in the first half, calmed down enough to completely stymie Moore several times. And aside from some initial jumping at the final buzzer before they stopped and got in the handshake line, the Cardinal and their coaches treated the win like “business as usual.”

“She’s probably thinking about what they could improve on,” said my friend Daniel Uribe (who has written in this space before), as we watched VanDerveer walk across the court, expressionless, toward the ESPN reporters.

And sure enough, one of the things she said before the night was over was, “it’s only December.” There’s a lot of season left.

I have renewed respect for VanDerveer and her knowledge of the game. My new name for her is the Buddha brain surgeon: she dismantled UConn with essentially a shrug.

The only time she smiled was after she put ESPN reporter Jimmy Dykes in check when he tried to turn the conversation back to the Huskies in the post-game interview.

“It’s about Stanford tonight,” she said grinning.

The star of the night was Brea, California’s own Jeanette Pohlen, with a career-high 31 points and nine rebounds. Her three-pointers were deadly; her tenacity, potent. The Cardinal senior is an alumnus of the Brea Olinda basketball program, and Coach Jeff Sink said he and his wife were utterly thrilled at the end of last night’s game. At the same time, Pohlen’s performance didn’t surprise him in the least.

“They say about great players that they always come with a new trick, and that’s Jeanette,” Sink said. “She may not always be fluid, but she’s very clever and always plays extremely hard.”

Sink said that the summer before she reported to Stanford, she’d go to the Brea gym and shoot for three hours.

“That was her work ethic, and it still is,” he said.

Sink called Pohlen the greatest kid he’s coached in 30 years, and half of that is because of the person she is – not just the player.

“She still emails or texts me after every win to congratulate me,” Sink said. “She’s never stopped doing that.”

The strangest thing about the end of UConn’s winning streak to me wasn’t the actual loss, but the fact that history repeated itself. In 1971 Notre Dame was the last team to defeat the UCLA men until 1974, when they did it again to break their 88-game winning streak. Now the Stanford team are the bookends to UConn’s record.

We’ll see what other tricks that the Powers That Be have for us now. It’s going to be a nice, long three months.