Most of us remember the old adage, "The best thing about freshmen is that they become sophomores," by Al McGuire. For Connecticut Huskies head coach Geno Auriemma and Stanford Cardinal head coach Tara VanDerveer that time can probably not come soon enough. But when the ball is thrown up Monday night (7:30 PM, ESPNU) they will both be relying on freshmen to get the job done.
Last year, Stanford rocked UConn 71-59 in Palo Alto, to end UConn's 90-game winning streak. A driving force in that win was anchored by the performances of Kayla Pedersen and Jeanette Pohlen for the Cardinal. In 40 minutes, Pedersen collected a team high 11 rebounds while adding 8 points. Pohlen was the offensive spark collecting 31 points, 9 rebounds and 6 assists. Simply put: She was everywhere and everything to the Cardinal. But both Pederson and Pohlen are gone and replacing them are 6 freshmen, with only 2 getting significant playing time when the game is on the line.
Amber Orrange and Taylor Greenfield have seen the most playing time for Stanford. Orrange has averaged 6.0 points, 3.7 rebounds and 3.0 assists in 18 minutes per game. Greenfield, who has been compared by some to Pedersen, has averaged 5.7 points, 3.0 rebounds and 2 assists in 21.7 minutes per game. The four other freshmen for the Cardinal, Bonnie Samuelson, Alex Green, Jasmine Camp and Erica Payne have collected their points and rebounds well after the game has been decided. A product of the depth that they have inside and the experience that they had returning. Coach VanDerveer has enough depth to allow her freshmen to learn by watching, not losing.
In comparison UConn has had to have a ‘Baptism by Fire' approach, much like they adopted last year. Pre-Season Big East Freshman of the Year, Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis has lived up to her advanced billing. She has averaged 16 points, 7.0 rebounds and 1 assist in 26.5 minutes per game. In addition to Mosqueda-Lewis, fellow freshman Kiah Stokes has proven that she is a more than capable backup and coconspirator with Pre-Season Wade Watch List Candidate, Stefanie Dolson. Stokes has been a solid defender and shown glimpses of an array of offensive moves. She has been the number 1 post option off the bench, averaging 17.5 minutes, 6 points, 4 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 steal and 1 block per game. Even more impressive then Stokes has been fellow frosh, Brianna Banks. Banks will not wow you with amazing shooting (though I think that is an underrated part of her game.) In her 18 minutes per game, Banks will put in 7.0 points, 1.5 rebounds and 1.3 assists, nice but not her most impressive quality. Brianna Banks continues to be an impressive defensive player, for anyone, never mind a freshman. She is balanced, poised and pesky, giving her team the spark that they need to pull away. It was those traits along with her fellow freshmen that UConn needed to pull away from Pacific. UConn was up 11-6 against the Tigers and playing sloppy and uninspired. Who does Geno sub in? His 3 freshman, who proceed to bombard Pacific with a 30-2 run to put the game out of reach.
Whose freshmen can keep their poise longer and provide a spark will be important in determining the outcome of tonight's game.
Vanderveer is quick to point out that while she has limited some of her freshmen's playing time, UConn doesn't even have a freshmen in the starting line-up, while she does with Greenfield getting the start at forward.
"I don't know exactly how Geno's been [managing his freshmen] but I don't think they have a freshman in the starting lineup," she said. "We do. We just play the freshman where we need them, and based on how they're doing."
"We're fortunate that we have Nneka and Chiney, Toni Kokenis, a young sophomore and Lindy La Rocque, a senior. We play Taylor Greenfield as a freshman, the first person off the bench is Amber. Our first post off the bench is a junior, Joslyn Tinkle, then depending on what we need we bring in Jasmine Camp, or Erica Payne or Bonnie Samuelson. It's all based on what we need. One of our players who could really help us down the road was hurt, but she's coming back. We're fortunate that we have some upperclassmen that can play and to lead the way and show our freshmen what they're supposed to be doing."
If you take Connecticut's freshmen away, you don't have much of a bench left. Making it necessary that they play well don't get overwhelmed with the moment.
"I know one of them will [do well]," Auriemma said. "I know Kaleena will because she reacts that way in practice every day. So I'm not worried about her. I think the other two. I'm curious to see how they do. I'm anxious to see what their take is on a game against a really good team that early in the season. They've not really experienced that here. I don't know if they've experienced in high school or AAU either. So, yeah, I'll be real anxious to see.''
Coach VanDerveer agrees. It's why they play the game.
"You really don't know what they are going to do," Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said. "But the advantage of playing a big game now is that you hope to be in the NCAA Tournament, and by then they will be accustomed to playing in big games. They will know how to adapt to the crowds and excitement and know better how to focus and keep their poise."
You Have Some Making Up To Do
Stanford returns 7 players, 6 who saw significant time in last year's match up. Those 7 players accounted for 120 minutes of the 200 minutes of the game. UConn only returns 5 players, who with the departure of Maya Moore, Lorin Dixon and Samarie Walker (Transferred to Kentucky), return 118 of the 200 minutes of the game.
Pohlen and Pedersen accounted for 39 of Stanford's 71 points (55%) and 20 of Stanford's 43 rebounds (47%).
Moore, Dixon and Walker only contributed 17 of UConn's 59 points (29%) and 14 of their 36 rebounds (39%)
Another Streak on the Line
UConn has won an NCAA record 85 consecutive games at home, dating back to a 2007 Big East Tournament loss to Rutgers. If UConn was to lose tonight, Stanford will take over as the longest with their current home win streak of 61. Like always, Auriemma said he is not concerned.
"Maybe it'll end tomorrow just like the other streak ended," Auriemma said. "It'll end. It's not going to last forever. I'm not going to win every game for the rest of my coaching career at home."
Last season, Geno Auriemma said his team doesn't know how to lose. That after losing to Stanford his young team was kind of unaffected; joking around in the airport like it was an AAU tournament and they had another game. So it wasn't a big surprise to hear that the fact that Stanford ended their record 90 game win streak hasn't come up.
"I haven't really talked to them about it,'' Auriemma said. "I really don't get into that kind of stuff. Hey, we couldn't beat them with Maya on our team. How are we going to beat them without her? So there's no point in talking about the revenge and all this and all that. I've always thought that that was kind of an odd way to go about things because if we win tomorrow night do they give us back the one they beat us there and keep that streak alive? That one's gone. It's gone. It's over with. It's done. It's a whole new one. That whole other stuff that just gets in the way of what you've got to do.''
Caroline Doty agrees. "That hasn't really come up with us," she said. "Other's mention it. Like friends and classmates. We are just concentrating on playing a really good team at home to see where we are."
Keys to Victory
1. Leadership: There will be some freshman and sophomore moments on both sides. Both teams have young guards with a large load to bear. It is up to the upper classman to right the ship and lead by example. That's calling you: Tiffany Hayes, Caroline Doty, Kelly Faris, Lindy La Rocque and Nnemkadi Ogwumike. Which of you imposes your will on the game will have a direct correlation to who goes home with the victory.
2. Rebounding: In UConn's 2 losses last year they were rebounded 43-36 by Stanford and 39-27 by Notre Dame. Both teams want to run and to do so you have to control the boards because you can't run without the ball. Stanford has been averaging almost 15 more rebounds than their opponents this season, while UConn has been averaging 16 more rebounds than their opposition. (UConn has had an incredibly weaker schedule at 312th compared to Stanford's 49th.) Guards have to rebound. Hartley's and Haye's rebounds are at the lowest of their careers right now.
3. Live by the "3" die by the "3": Connecticut is small. That has been well documented this season with their 4 guard set. Auriemma believes this is an extremely tough match up for Stefanie Dolson because of the athleticism that the Ogwumike sisters present. A lot of pressure will be put on UConn's guards to make shots to free Dolson. UConn is shooting 45% from 3 in the early season, with them hitting 9.5 3's per game so far. Stanford is shooting 40% from 3 with 7 players having attempted a 3 in a game.
4. Control the Turnovers: VanDerveer believes that this team is her most athletic and fastest yet. They want to extend their defense and press. That is exactly what Connecticut wants to do too and when they have shown to be at their best. 67 of UConn's 189 points this season have come off of turnovers. Stanford's starting guards, La Rocque and Toni Kokenis have only averaged 2 turnovers between them per game. Orrange has shown that her handle has been a little shaky in the early season with 7 turnovers for the season, 5 against Texas alone. For UConn, Guard Bria Hartley will have the ball in her hand most of the time and she has a team high, 6 turnovers (3 per game) in the early going. Rebounding and turnovers give you more possessions, the latter can lead to quick points.
5. You're No Use on the Bench: Simply put you need to play smart. Both teams have the propensity for their key players to get into foul trouble. Tiffany Hayes has had to sit in the first half of both games with 2 fouls. Dolson and Hartley have had issues in the past. Stanford's posts have been shown to be flat footed in the past and can pick up cheap fouls but the most important pieces are the Ogwumike sisters. Both Chiney and Nneka have to stay on the floor for the Cardinal. Chiney fouled out last year trying to guard Maya Moore and Kelly Faris. There is no more Moore but Mosqueda-Lewis can be just as big of a handful.
Hang on to your seats ladies and gentlemen. This is bound to be another epic battle in the series. In 12 matchups each team has 6 victories and 6 defeats. Always with something big on the line. These teams met 4 years ago to the day in Cancun, with UConn getting a convincing victory 66-54. Stanford came back 5 months later and won in the National Semi-final 82-73. Tonight is about enjoying the beauty of the game.
It is going to be an up and down kind of game where neither team has to do much thinking they can just play. Exactly what you want when you are riding on freshmen.