Commentary

Defense helps keep Cardinal No. 1

Originally Published: December 23, 2012
By Graham Hays | espnW

Toni KokenisRandy Sartin/USA TODAY SportsToni Kokenis says the Cardinal defense is about "making a team uncomfortable."

The week began with Baylor's case for becoming the fourth school to win back-to-back national championships, and Brittney Griner, Odyssey Sims and the Lady Bears putting on a show in dismantling Tennessee.

It closed with Stanford showing why the road to No. 1 currently runs through the Bay Area.

The team that ended Baylor's winning streak, Stanford, traveled to the SEC and came away with wins at No. 21 South Carolina and No. 10 Tennessee. No other team in the top five has two wins against ranked teams in true road games.

"We played well against Baylor on a neutral court, and we've been playing well at home," Stanford guard Toni Kokenis said. "Going into a hostile environment where it's really packed and the crowd has been really involved and into games, especially with the style South Carolina and Tennessee played, was really important for us to keep our poise in that kind of environment, and it showed we could play well on the road."

It helps to have Chiney Ogwumike. As she did against Baylor in November, Stanford's junior played to the moment and the competition in both of the most recent games. If you have a player who can put up 21 points, 19 rebounds and five assists against Tennessee and 21 points and 15 rebounds against South Carolina, you have a chance in just about any game on any court.

[+] EnlargeOgwumike
Randy Sartin/USA TODAY SportsChiney Ogwumike, left, hung 21 points, five assists and a career-high 19 boards on Tennessee.

But it wasn't just Ogwumike's brilliance that stood out. The Cardinal left home with the nation's ninth-stingiest field goal defense and still managed to improve that statistic by limiting South Carolina to 29 percent shooting in a 53-49 victory and Tennessee to 32 percent shooting in a 73-60 win.

Outside of Ogwumike, Stanford had its share of struggles offensively against good defenses, touch particularly lacking from the 3-point line until Bonnie Samuelson came to the rescue in Knoxville. But for all the preseason focus on the impossible task of replacing Nnemkadi Ogwumike, the defensive performance on the road trip highlighted the degree to which continuity is an asset for this team. Kokenis, Joslyn Tinkle, Mikaela Ruef and Amber Orrange, along with Chiney, play like a group that has been through a lot of big games -- and a lot of scouting reports before big games.

"It's just we work really, really well together and communicate on defense and we can play off of each other," Kokenis said. "We're all really experienced, and it's something we focus on and pride ourselves on."

That's the intangible take. The tangible side is equally important, as the Cardinal turn around and prepare for Saturday's home game against No. 2 Connecticut (ESPNU, 4 p.m. ET).

Stanford forced just 17 total turnovers in stifling South Carolina and Tennessee. Forget the top 25; no team in the ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12 or SEC has forced fewer turnovers this season than the Cardinal. And yet, by dint of preparation, accountability and rebounding, they have a defense that can win games by stopping rather than taking.

"We don't worry about how many steals we're going to get," Kokenis said. "We do want to be aggressive, but it's more about making a team uncomfortable and making them do things that don't come as naturally to them."

Teams that rely on forcing turnovers against lesser competition tend to run into problems against Connecticut (just ask North Carolina). More than three-fourths of Division I teams currently average at least 16 turnovers per game; Connecticut hasn't averaged 16 turnovers per game since the 2002-03 season and isn't close this season. A defense can fluster the Huskies, as Notre Dame did, forcing 66 turnovers in three victories against its rival last season; but turnovers don't show up as a consistent theme in their losses in recent seasons. Limiting transition opportunities and making them work for points? That can work. It's why Stanford and Connecticut keep playing competitive games.

Stanford doesn't do defense like most contenders do defense. But defense is a big reason the Cardinal are No. 1.

Dispatches from Delaware-Monmouth

Early in the second half of Saturday's 82-53 road win against Monmouth, Elena Delle Donne eluded a defender's last-second lunge and banked in a 3-pointer from the wing. Delaware's All-American jogged back on defense with a chagrinned look and broke into a smile as she crossed half court. If the other shots she hit without the assistance of any good fortune were one sign of progress in her second game back, so was the fact that she felt good enough to have some fun at her own expense.

[+] EnlargeTianna Hawkins, Elena Delle Donne
AP Photo/Gail BurtonWith Tianna Hawkins (10.2 rpg) leading the way, Maryland is tough to beat on the boards, averaging 47.2 rebounds per game.

Playing just her third game this season, but her second game in three days after returning against Maryland on Thursday, Delle Donne scored 30 points and added nine rebounds in 24 minutes against a decidedly overmatched and undersized opponent. She took 14 shots and made 10 of them against the Hawks, including all but one of five attempts from behind the 3-point line.

Delle Donne hoped she was back for good when she made her season debut against Providence on Nov. 20, but her body reacted poorly as she continued to deal with the symptoms of Lyme disease. Another month on the sideline followed. But less than 48 hours after she played 34 minutes against a Maryland team as big and as physical as any in the country, she was back on the court against Monmouth.

"It was a great feeling to wake up the day after Maryland feeling refreshed and not exhausted," Delle Donne said. "It was kind of a surprise waking up, realizing that I was going to be all right, and I was going to be able to play [Saturday]. I think that means I'm getting healthier, and it was a very exciting thing for me."

Teammate and longtime friend, Kayla Miller, suggested the volume of impatient text messages she received from Delle Donne in the hours before the game against the Terrapins was ample proof that the latter didn't lack for energy on that occasion, but there was unmistakably more ease in Delle Donne's movements against Monmouth, more bounce in her step. It makes sense that there is rust to shake off, but it's also a good sign if it was rust and nothing more.

"This is her senior year," Delaware coach Tina Martin said. "This is it. She's never going to get college basketball back again. The kid came to Delaware, fell back in love with basketball and now, ironically, her body and these symptoms take some of the games away from her. If she can play in games, the kid wants to play in the games."

Dispatches from Maryland-Delaware

Wander down a hypothetical path with me for a minute. If there were a way to actually quantify the psychological impact of certain events in a basketball game, what would take the biggest toll on an opponent? A 3-pointer to beat the shot clock? A contemptuous block that sends the ball a dozen rows into the stands? How about an offensive rebound that leads to a basket after a team just expended close to 30 seconds of energy to force a miss?

There's no right answer, obviously, but I guess I lean toward the last option. It's soul-sapping.

Thursday's game between Maryland and Delaware offered a perfect example of the power of offensive rebounding from one of the art's best practicioners. The Blue Hens eventually did get back in the game, but Maryland's Tianna Hawkins nearly put things away with a one-woman scoring run to open the second half that came almost exclusively on offensive rebounds. She's averaging 4.6 offensive rebounds per game this season, very nearly more than any two of her teammates combined and more than all but six players across the six major conferences.

Two things are clear watching Maryland these days. First, the Terrapins really would have been title contenders with Brene Moseley and Laurin Mincy healthy. And second, this team still believes they are, with rebounding no other team in the nation can match at the moment, led by one player who never stops going after the ball.

"It's all Tianna," Maryland head coach Brenda Frese said. "It's her will, her competitiveness, her heart. She's turned herself into the player that she is, with her discipline and her dedication. This is why she's one of the best players in the country, and she has consistently shown that every single night. But she's relentless, when you're talking about going to the glass and wanting to get a rebound and going to the boards."

[+] EnlargeAshley Eide
AP Photo/Michael ConroySouth Dakota State's Ashley Eide scored 27 points, hit 7-of-12 3-pointers and grabbed 13 rebounds in a 64-58 win against Georgetown.

She also starred

Ashley Eide, South Dakota State: This makes two appearances for the senior in a spot designed to highlight players who come up just short of espnW player of the week honors. Playing on the road against Georgetown in the team's third game in six days -- a span that included a trip to Penn State last Sunday, a return trip to South Dakota for a midweek game and a trek eastward again to face the Hoyas in Washington D.C. -- Eide totaled 27 points and 13 rebounds in a 64-58 win against the Big East opponent.

While Georgetown's Sugar Rodgers took scoring honors in the game, Eide was a model of efficiency. Her points came on just 16 shots and, she hit 7-of-12 attempts from the 3-point line. The 5-foot-9 guard also led all players in rebounds. Earlier in the week, she scored 25 points in a win against Delaware State.

Team of the weekend

Notre Dame: Facing a pretty good approximation of what the first three rounds of the NCAA tournament might look like, only in the span of a little more than 48 hours instead of more than a week, Notre Dame took care of business methodically and efficiently in the World Vision Classic in Las Vegas. The Fighting Irish routed Alabama A&M and Kansas State in the first two games of their stay in the desert and held their ground after a Texas A&M rally in the finale to earn an 83-74 win. Considering there are so many new parts, or old parts in new roles, on this team, it's a nice test run for March.

If not for Kelsey Bone's big week week for Texas A&M, or Ogwumike's eye-popping numbers on Stanford's road trip, Skylar Diggins might well have claimed player of the week honors. She needed just 24 minutes against Kansas State to post 22 points and eight assists, and scored 14 of her 24 points against Texas A&M in the second half.

Another team testing itself with a quick turnaround in a holiday tournament, Creighton, deserves mention here, too. The Bluejays beat Miami (Ohio) and South Florida on back-to-back days in Mexico to strengthen an already strong mid-major profile. It's tough to come up with a better line than Sarah Nelson's against South Florida. The Creighton junior scored 29 points on 12-of-14 shooting and added eight rebounds, three assists and three blocks.

Upset of the week

Cal State Northridge: The same UCLA Bruins whose praises were sung just last week in these pages dropped a 77-72 decision to the Matadors at Pauley Pavilion. Lisa Dillman has the full accounting in the Los Angeles Times, but there is a heck of a six-degrees-of-separation angle, too. Northridge coach Jason Flowers, a UCLA alum, is married to former U.S. Olympic softball standout (and current Northridge softball coach) Tairia Flowers. Jason's better half won a national championship in college as a member of, you guessed it, UCLA. Their homecoming invitations might get lost in the mail.

Honorable mention to Alabama, which beat Virginia in double overtime four days after it lost at home to Wofford. The Crimson Tide and Cavaliers combined to miss 98 field goal attempts and turn over the ball 54 times in 50 minutes of basketball, so this might not have been the most artistic game on record, but that makes it no less of a notable win for the home team. For the season, Alabama is forcing 30 turnovers per game, more even than Kentucky, but it's also shooting 33 percent from the field and 61 percent from the free throw line.

Before next weekend

Christmas means a light schedule for most of the week, but Friday offers its share of good games.

Georgia at Illinois (Friday): There is little evidence to prove unbeaten Georgia is not one of the six best teams in the country at the moment, but there isn't a mountain of supporting evidence, either. Its schedule to this point is, frankly, unworthy of a top-10 team. A trip to Illinois, which lost at home to Illinois State on Friday, won't change that, but at least it's a road game. Schedule aside, the Bulldogs take extremely good care of the basketball, which might bode ill for the Illini.

Oklahoma State vs. Harvard (Friday): Recording a triple-double is impressive in its own right, but almost doing it on just one end of the court is downright nifty. Oklahoma State's Brittney Martin finished with 10 points, 14 rebounds and 10 assists in Saturday's win against Texas-Arlington, but she came one offensive rebound away from getting an all-offense triple-double. The Cowgirls remain unbeaten against a very modest schedule, but this game on a neutral court in San Diego should be a test against a sneaky good Ivy League team that hasn't played since Dec. 10.

Iowa vs. Texas (Friday): Another neutral-site game in San Diego pits an Iowa team looking to prove it's as good as its recent results suggest against a young Texas team hoping to prove it's better than its recent slide. The Longhorns weren't particularly competitive in losses against UCLA and Tennessee, but could have a decided edge on the boards against the Hawkeyes, with or without Cokie Reed, who missed the past two games with an illness.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.

Comments

Use a Facebook account to add a comment, subject to Facebook's Terms of Service and Privacy Policy. Your Facebook name, photo & other personal information you make public on Facebook will appear with your comment, and may be used on ESPN's media platforms. Learn more.