- Graham Watson, College Football
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SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Almost all of the questions during Sunday's news conferences with Stanford and Xavier were about the impact of the post players in Monday's regional final.
The last teams standing in the Sacramento Regional took opposite approaches to the questions. Xavier downplayed it, Stanford embraced it, but both teams acknowledged that the bigs would make an impact on the outcome.
"It is a game of bigs," Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said. "How often do they play against a team with as many bigs as we have? How often do we play against a team as big or with quality bigs as they have? We're a little bit of mirror teams with the inside game being the presence."
Both teams have three players in their starting lineup who could be a force under the basket. Stanford's inside game is led by center Jayne Appel, and Xavier relies on Ta'Shia Phillips for its post presence. Nnemkadi Ogwumike and Kayla Pedersen also provide an inside threat for the Cardinal while Amber Harris and April Phillips do the same for the Musketeers.
All six players are among the top scorers for their respective teams.
"I think they're athletic and their post game is really good and we match up well with them," Ta'Shia Phillips said. "[Appel is] a very good post player. She knows how to get angles to the rim and create her own shot. I think we match up very well."
If there's one difference between the two squads, it's experience against teams that feature their own skilled post players.
During a brutal stretch in December, the Cardinal played Duke, Tennessee and Connecticut. All three teams were ranked and featured tough post players in the Blue Devils' Krystal Thomas, the Vols' Kelley Cain and UConn's Tina Charles.
"I think this is where our preseason really comes into play," VanDerveer said. "We have played against Tina Charles. We have played against Kelley Cain. Because one thing that I think is really missing from the Pac-10 is the big bigs. Now maybe it's missing all over the country, but this is where it's helpful that our team has played Ohio State. Jantel Lavender is one of the best post players."
Xavier doesn't have quite the portfolio to draw on while preparing for Monday's game. The biggest team it played was Michigan State in early December, a 66-53 loss. Harris said the loss to Michigan State was less about the Spartans beating them, and more about the Musketeers beating themselves.
"Michigan State, they played harder than we did," Harris said. "And shots weren't falling and we weren't rebounding and things like that. We've learned a lot from that in that we should just play together all the time and play hard all the time and be an aggressive team from the start."
Aggressiveness is something Harris is trying to bring to her own game Monday. Harris said she's taken some criticism for being passive.
"My teammates tell me I need to attack more and be more aggressive and that I'm just settling for my shot, which has been a little off," Harris said. "I just think that I need to attack more because I feel like I could probably get more out of attacking and then create more."
That attacking mentality is something that concerns VanDerveer about Harris' effect on the game. She said Harris' ability to shoot from the perimeter and drive the basketball will be tough to defend and could lead Stanford to play some zone defense.
VanDerveer also noted that Phillips' rebounding ability, especially on the offensive end, will be tough to deal with since Appel is still feeling the affects of an ankle injury she suffered a few weeks ago.
"One thing that really jumps out to you is someone that has 197 offensive boards," VanDerveer said of Phillips' stats. "So, the first reaction on our team was that maybe she doesn't shoot a very good field goal percentage. No, that's not it. That's something that's extremely impressive to me, getting on the glass, how they rebound."
While the focus Sunday was almost exclusively on the inside players, others players maintained that almost too much attention was being paid to the bigs, taking away the fact that ultimately, the best all-around team will reach the Final Four.
"I don't think it's going to be a big versus big game," Xavier guard Special Jennings said. "I think it's going to be Xavier and Stanford. I think it's going to be us running our offense, running our plays and Stanford's defense, whatever they throw at us. I just think we've got to do what got us here and that's throwing the ball inside, throwing the ball outside. Whether Ta'Shia and them score big or whether any of us on the perimeter score big, I just think we've got to do what got us here. We can't feed into the 'Oh, it's going to be a post thing.'"
Graham Watson covers college football for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Sacramento Regional winner could very well be determined by Xavier's and Stanford's post players, writes Graham Watson.