Commentary

Cardinal can't close out title game

Stanford led 20-12 at halftime but couldn't overcome 26.5 percent shooting or UConn

Originally Published: April 6, 2010
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

SAN ANTONIO -- How bad was her ankle? It was bad. Jayne Appel's eyes watered a few times as she talked about the pain she felt individually, and that Stanford felt collectively.

But overall, this wasn't a teary Stanford locker room. The mood was less sad and more … ticked off. Stunned. Irritated. Disbelieving.

"We had the No. 1 team in the country -- this amazing team, everybody's talking about them -- we had them down at halftime. They had 12 points," Stanford junior Jeanette Pohlen said. "We're frustrated and angry right now. Last year when we played them, they just took it at us, and we really didn't give it back to them. This year … I really feel like we had them in this game."

[+] EnlargeJayne Appel
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesJayne Appel, hobbled by an ankle injury for the past month, went scoreless for the first time in her Cardinal career Tuesday, shooting 0-for-12.

Yet the Huskies still found a way to win, 53-47, denying Stanford a national title in its third consecutive trip to the Final Four and ninth overall.

It was a nightmare last game for the senior Appel, who has been playing on an injured ankle since last month. In Tuesday's game, she re-injured it when she came down hard and twisted it again. The combination of her resulting lack of mobility and Tina Charles' brick-wall defense left Appel scoreless for the only game of her All-American career.

While gutting out an excruciating 30 minutes, Appel missed all 12 of her field goal attempts.

Appel said afterward of how she felt emotionally: "Like hell, to be honest. But when I left the court, I went and got a shot of pain medicine, so I don't really feel [my ankle] now. I'm probably going to feel it in about three hours."

And, of course, she's going to feel the pain of this loss for a long time.

"I did my best to try to play through it, but I wasn't very effective," Appel said. "It was just an unfortunate time to have an injury like an ankle, where it's not that serious but it can keep nagging on. I couldn't practice, I couldn't get any conditioning in."

Appel said she also got a painkilling shot during Tuesday's game. She would have preferred to avoid it, she said, because, "It has side effects, makes your head fuzzy. I didn't want to take it unless I absolutely needed to."

She did need it, though. And unfortunately for Appel and the rest of the Cardinal players, there is no painkiller to help take the sting out of not winning the championship.

The Cardinal remain the last team to beat UConn, doing it two years previously to the day, on April 6, 2008. That was in the Final Four semifinals in Tampa behind star Candice Wiggins. But then in the 2008 final, the Cardinal lost 64-48 to Tennessee.

Last season, Stanford fell 83-64 to UConn in the national semis. This year, the Huskies vexed the Cardinal again.

And this one was nothing short of utterly bizarre for Stanford. It was an ugly game after which the Cardinal players probably felt as if they'd spent the night running through a freakish house of mirrors where at nearly every turn what looked like an exit turned into another mirror to run into.

Stanford did a ton right defensively. The Cardinal played a sagging man-to-man defense that forced UConn to try to hit from the perimeter, something the Huskies could hardly do at all in the first half.

And even though UConn, led by Maya Moore, did start to make shots in the second half, the Huskies still scored only 53 points. Which is almost exactly (53.9) what the Cardinal had allowed their opponents to average for this season. Meanwhile, Stanford came in averaging 76.9 points itself, with its lowest previous output this season coming in the heart-stopping 55-53 Elite Eight win over Xavier.

[+] EnlargeStanford
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesStanford held UConn to its worst field goal percentage -- 32.8 (and the next-lowest was 37.7) -- in the Huskies' 78-game win streak.

The Cardinal, after making just one 3-pointer in their semifinal win over Oklahoma, made eight of them against UConn. The two areas Stanford said it was most concerned about correcting after its 12-point loss to UConn in December -- rebounding and turnovers -- were corrected.

Stanford finished even on the boards with the Huskies at 49-49; there were plenty of rebounds available in this clankfest. And not only did Stanford have only 11 turnovers Tuesday, its 18 combined in the two games here is the lowest total in Final Four history.

Stanford's combined 102 rebounds against the Sooners and Huskies were the second-most ever in a Final Four, behind Old Dominion's 114 in 1985.

That was the year, incidentally, that coach Tara VanDerveer took over at Stanford, finishing 13-15 in her first season, 1985-86. But just four years later, in 1990, she won a national championship. Stanford returned to the Final Four in 1991 (falling in the semis to Tennessee) and then won another NCAA title in '92.

But despite six more subsequent trips to the Final Four, the Cardinal have not won another national championship. In 1995, '96 and '97, Stanford lost in the semifinals each year.

The current Cardinal players know about this history. Because VanDerveer and assistant Amy Tucker have been there for all of it. And the other two assistants, Kate Paye and Bobbie Kelsey, were players at Stanford when the Cardinal won that '92 title.

Plus, several past Stanford players have come to these past three Final Fours to have "ice-cream socials" with the current team before play begins. Everyone currently in a Stanford uniform knows full well what the program has done … and, unfortunately, what it hasn't done in the past 18 years.

Incidentally, it has also been 18 years since a team shot as badly in the NCAA title game as Stanford did Tuesday. The Cardinal's 26.5 percent was the lowest since Western Kentucky shot 29.6 percent against … yep, Stanford in 1992. So the Cardinal have been on both ends of that spectrum. On Tuesday, Stanford was on the end it definitely didn't want to be on.

Junior Kayla Pedersen, who played all 40 minutes, led the Cardinal with 15 points and 17 rebounds. Sophomore Nneka Ogwumike, who scored 38 points in the semifinals, had 11 points and 13 rebounds against UConn. Pedersen and Ogwumike combined to go 10-of-27 from the field. Stanford also got to the line just four times, as compared to UConn's 22.

But even that was something that actually went well for Stanford, because the Huskies made just nine of those free throws (40.9 percent). And it still didn't keep UConn from winning.

"I'm upset that we couldn't do it with this team, because I love this team," Pedersen said. "I mean, to be so close for three years in a row -- that's just going to drive everybody. Honestly, I just want to get in the gym right now and keep working. It's not the end of the world, though. I, at least, have another shot."

Appel, however, does not. She concluded her Stanford career as the Pac-10's leading rebounder (1,265) and the Cardinal's top shot-blocker (273). Hobbled as she is, Appel knows WNBA teams now have to gauge how quickly they think she could help them this season.

"I'm not going to be a player who blames [Tuesday's performance] all on my injury," she said. "I think it was just a tough battle. But hopefully, the people in the pro league take into account that I have been playing hurt for four weeks. I think everyone has seen what I'm individually capable of, but it's really up to them."

As Appel and Rosalyn Gold-Onwude move on, the Cardinal will get an infusion of talent next season as Ogwumike's younger sister, Chiney, joins the team. Center Sarah Boothe, who redshirted what was to be her sophomore season this year, hopes to return healthy for 2010-11. And on Friday, guard JJ Hones undergoes a surgery to try to help her ailing knee. Her goal is to be back for her senior year if at all possible.

"I guarantee," Pohlen said, "we will be making a run next season."

Pedersen showed she knows a lot more than just Stanford's painful history. She referenced another team that went to the Final Four for five seasons in a row (2004-08) but lost in the semifinals each time.

"I don't want to be that LSU team that never wins a national championship," Pedersen said. "That's what the players who are returning are thinking right now."

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.