Sunday, April 3, 2011

Stunned by the unthinkable

By Wally Mersereau

I thought this was the team that deserved a national championship. It entered the first Final Four game relatively healthy. It had experience. Texas A&M seemed like a preferable opponent for the semi-final game rather than Baylor--no Griner to have to deal with. I came to Indianapolis to see my first Final Four because I thought this would be the time.

There was a good send-off from the Crowne Plaza hotel by maybe 250 Stanford fans, the band, the Tree and four Dollies. A two-motorcycle police escort with sirens led the team bus to the arena. Somewhere between 800 and 1,000 Stanford fans attended the game. There was an Edy's ice cream concession at Conseco Fieldhouse. The stage was set.

I have seen every Stanford game this season. I can attest that Texas A&M presented the most effective defense Stanford has faced. The Cardinal initially appeared rattled by the tight defense and was down by 7 in the first half, but fought back to take a 4-point lead at the half, 27-23. I thought and said it could have been worse. Stanford had ended the half with a little momentum.

The second half went much better for Stanford through the first 15 minutes with the Cardinal generally having an 8- to 10-point lead. But the lead was never a comfortable one and team fouls began to climb. With 4:20 left the Stanford lead was down to 5 and Chiney fouled out. With 3:41 left the lead was down to 3. Stanford managed to get up by 4, 58-54, with 2:23 remaining. At the 1:33 mark the lead was one. With less than a minute to go the game was tied and then A&M was up by one. Nenka's two free throws reversed the lead to 60-59 Stanford. At some point Mel fouled out. A&M made a lay-up with 19 seconds remaining and it was 60-61. Nneka's quick lay-up made it Stanford ahead 62-61 with 9 seconds left. A thrilling win seemed likely--but no, it was not to be. With 3 seconds left A&M made a final lay-up to win 62-63. A desperation down-the-court Stanford heave on the inbound was picked off by A&M and it was over.

Nneka was the only Stanford player that could deal with the A&M defense to score an amazing 31 points, along with 7 rebounds. Jeanette was the only other player in double digits with 11. Kayla and Chiney were both held to 4 points. Kayla grabbed 10 rebounds which may have been enough to give her a new careeer rebounding record.

Seven Stanford players had 11 minutes or more, with the biggest surprise being Mel's 27 minutes, during which she scored 8 points. Kayla played the entire game, Nneka and Jeanette had 39 minutes and Mikaela had 20 minutes. Chiney's foul problems limited her to 19 minutes. Toni was ineffective and played only 4 minutes. Another surprise was that Joslyn did not play at all.

The only thing that has eased the pain slightly as I write this is that Notre Dame beat UConn in the second game 72-63. So no #1 seed will be in the championship game on Tuesday. Two semi-final upsets. The anticipated Stanford-UConn rematch will not happen.

And so the dream has ended abruptly in Indianapolis. It was great while it lasted, it just didn't last quite long enough. Once again: so near and yet so far.