Commentary

Cardinal come away with a few lessons

Originally Published: December 23, 2009
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

There is no bull-slinging to do about Wednesday's 80-68 UConn rout of Stanford. It was a great game for one half only. The Huskies ran away in the second half. They did everything to Stanford that they've done to far inferior opponents: They overwhelmed the Cardinal. The 12-point margin could have been bigger had the Huskies not backed off just a bit at the end.

So it's understandable if your initial reaction after this game was, "That's it. The only excitement this season will be seeing who else makes the Final Four. The Huskies are winning it all again."

And indeed, they very well might. There is no arguing that UConn was just flat-out better Wednesday.

But it's pointless for Stanford to take a defeatist approach to this, and coach Tara VanDerveer will never let that happen. Consider a few positive things the Cardinal can come away with from this game. Stanford in the past eight days has faced as difficult a stretch as anything it will see in March: Duke, Tennessee, UConn. The Cardinal went 2-1. What did the giants of the Left Coast learn?

"I think that when we watch the videotape of this, we'll see that people did not put a body on people in terms of boxing out the way we need to," VanDerveer said. "They are quick jumpers, and they are very athletic. We will look at it, but I think that was a big part of why we were not as successful as we need to be.

"Credit them, they did get on the glass, and they were very aggressive and they rebounded very well. I think we can do a better job."

Yes, the Cardinal most definitely can do better in every phase of the game. But boxing out -- the basketball equivalent to baseball's keeping your eye on the ball -- is one of those demonically "simple" things that often isn't that simple.

Especially not when UConn gets into runaway freight-train mode. When the Huskies get their confidence really high, as they did in the second half, plus have the adrenaline of the crowd behind them, it starts to seem as if they are truly at a different level than their opponents.

[+] EnlargeNnemkadi Ogwumike
AP Photo/Bob ChildNnemkadi Ogwumike led Stanford with 20 points, and added six rebounds on Dec. 23.

But did the game really show the Huskies to be unbeatable? If you are looking for things they did wrong, which even the best teams always do, you might note that high-quality scoring beyond the starters is still a potential issue for UConn. The Cardinal were in no position to exploit that Wednesday. But that might not necessarily be the case if they meet again.

You could say that Stanford has to get tougher, because the Cardinal seemed to be pushed around too much and not in position -- or not willing -- to take charges. But that might be just a bit harsh.

Again, not to make excuses, but this game did start to get that lion's den feel … largely because Stanford is the only team so far that has been able to really get the competitive juices flowing for Huskies Nation.

How excited can players or fans get when they're wiping the floor with a team that never had the slightest hope of staying within 20 points of them? That has been the case with most of UConn's games this season. Until Stanford, the only team that probably would have said, "Well, we at least might have a chance," was Texas. (It turned out the Longhorns didn't.)

The Huskies and their fans have had absolutely no drama to get worked up over so far. There has been nothing to push the players to the next gear outside of coach Geno Auriemma yelling in practice. Surely, they had to love the adrenaline rush provided by Stanford's first-half threat. And their powerful reaction to it had fans in the XL Center responding as if they were in a packed movie theater watching Ripley take on the monsters in "Aliens."

Those Stanford players like Jayne Appel, Kayla Pedersen, JJ Hones, Rosalyn Gold-Onwude and Jeanette Pohlen who experienced beating UConn in the 2008 national semifinals had reason to believe they could do it again Wednesday. Along with sophomore Nnemkadi Ogwumike, they played like it for 20 minutes.

So how do they prepare for trying to do it for 40 minutes if they face UConn again in the NCAA tournament?

They need to examine what they did right against Duke and Tennessee. They need to acknowledge that while facing UConn on a neutral court is bound to be different, energywise, from playing in the Huskies' backyard, they were still back on their heels way too much. They need to encourage their bench players to step forward and show they're worthy of scholarships to Stanford.

Yeah, why not? How about a little pride-challenging? How about Stanford's players going into every game from here on out with the intent to never be outhustled or outworked again?

"I think, yes, we will use it as a motivation," Appel said afterward. "But we have a lot of games to play before we begin to even say we are going back to the Final Four."

A lot of time in which the Cardinal can prove something to themselves.

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

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