- Michelle Smith, Contributor, espnW.com
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STANFORD, Calif. -- Toni Kokenis and Joslyn Tinkle sat on either side of Tara VanDerveer in the Stanford media room Sunday evening, discussing their game-turning performances in the No. 6 Cardinal's 69-56 win over No. 20 Colorado.
Kokenis has 15 points with five assists, and a key 3-pointer to beat the shot clock that turned the tide on a game that was getting too close to comfort. Tinkle came up with 16 points, five rebounds, four assists and three blocks.
Both efforts were important complements to a 20-point, 12-rebound effort by Chiney Ogwumike.
In Stanford's locker room, Sara James and Mikaela Ruef already had time to shower and change into their steeet clothes. Neither player will find herself being summoned into a postgame news conference anytime soon, but quotes aren't what VanDerveer seeks from them right now.
Instead, Stanford's coach wants their energy, their grit, their physicality, a few points and, when it's absolutely necessary, a big play or two.
On Sunday, Kokenis, Tinkle, sophomore guard Amber Orrange (10 points) and Ogwumike -- who was hobbled by a tweaked left ankle in the second half -- had most of it covered against the aggressive Buffaloes (15-4, 4-4), who shaved a 21-point deficit to six before ultimately succumbing to the first-place Cardinal (18-2, 7-1).
But James and Ruef -- who finished the game a combined 1-for-7 with 6 rebounds and 4 assists -- were ready to step up if needed and regularly contribute beyond what shows up in the box score.
With defenses focusing their efforts on the Cardinal's undisputed go-to player, Ogwumike, and perimeter shooting coming and going for Stanford already this season, it might just take a hustle play or some body-knocking underneath the basket to get this team back to the Final Four for the sixth straight year. That's where James and Ruef come in.
"Neither of them played a lot last year," VanDerveer said. "They are excited to be out there and we need that energy."
James and Ruef, a redshirt junior who ranks second on the team with 6.1 rebounds per game, have spent most of their Stanford careers as role players, a dubious distinction for all those players who wish and work for more time on the floor. James had not averaged more than eight minutes and had never started a game coming into this season.
Now, she has started five, including Sunday's game. The 5-foot-10 James has good size on the wing and, despite Sunday's shooting struggles, has had some big offensive games, including an 18-point night in the opening weekend of Pac-12 play against Utah and 13 points last week against Southern California.
"After you've been sitting a couple of years straight, that does something to you," said James, a junior who is averaging 4.3 points. "When you get out there, you really appreciate it and you are trying to make the most of it."
Ruef had also never logged a career start before this season. She averaged more than 10 minutes a game in 2010-11 and was building momentum toward a strong junior season when a foot injury sidelined her just three games in, forcing her to sit out the rest of 2011-12.
Ruef has started 15 games this season, filling the middle of the paint as Ogwumike's partner in the post. Ruef typically defends the the opposing team's top inside player and looks to score a little here and there.
"Mikaela is a big body in there, she's moving people and she's strong and she can rebound," VanDerveer said. "We need her to score a little bit more."
Ruef said VanDerveer talks to her a lot about energy.
"I go as hard as I can for as long as I can," Ruef said.
Though she's not sure how much longer that will be. Ruef is in her fourth year of eligibility. And all of Stanford's scholarships are spoken for next season.
"I am trying not to let that get to me," Ruef said. "Sitting out last year, I did realize that I took for granted being able to play. It was tough to come to practice, watch every practice, go to every game and not be able to do anything. That has helped me this year."
Interestingly, VanDerveer has told both Ruef and James that is the "little things" she wants to see from them. Little things that could matter big in March and April.
Their contributions don't always show up in the box score. But Sara James and Mikaela Ruef could have a big impact on how far Stanford goes this season.