When the Stanford Cardinal went to a zone in the second half of their 83-60 win against the Gonzaga Bulldogs last night in the Elite Eight, it immediately reminded me of what the Notre Dame Fighting Irish did to Gonzaga defensively during their 70-61 win in the State Farm Holiday Hoops Classic back in December.
At one point, I even wondered if Stanford had used Notre Dame's defensive strategy as a blueprint - in both cases, Gonzaga moved the ball looking for scoring opportunities, but struggled to respond against a zone defense that simply didn't show up in their scouting.
"We're one of the best shooting teams in the country and if you look at those four losses, we're shooting either 35 or 36 percent shooting in those losses," Graves said while also noting that Notre Dame's defense deserved credit. "I thought when they went to the 1-3-1, we haven't seen that this year. At least in the tapes we got...they hadn't shown that. I thought that knocked us a little out of kilter."
That Notre Dame game would ultimately stand as Gonzaga's last loss before reeling off 21 consecutive wins - including three NCAA tournament games - before last night's meeting with the Cardinal in Spokane.
While Graves has attributed that Notre Dame loss to playing some players too many minutes both during his post-game interview and during a NCAA Tournament sub-regional media session, the game did reveal at least one thing about this finesse Bulldogs team that relies heavily on jumpshooting to score: if an opponent can play an effective zone that prevents penetration from Courtney Vandersloot and those jumpers stop falling, the Bulldogs can suddenly go from one of the most efficient offenses in the nation to one that looks at a loss for answers.
Stanford accomplished that to a level of defensive precision last night that Notre Dame simply doesn't have the personnel to accomplish to end the Bulldogs's magical tournament run on a sour note.
Key statistic: Stanford's zone held Gonzaga to 23.5% shooting from the field in the second half
Similar to what Gonzaga might have scouted against Notre Dame, Stanford is not necessarily a zone team, but they deployed it at the right time against the right opponent and it worked to great effect: Gonzaga's trademark tournament synergy simply wasn't there against Stanford falling to 0.78 in the second half from 1.03 in the first.
The biggest difference between Notre Dame's 1-3-1 zone and any zone scheme that Stanford uses is length - with Chiney and Nneka Ogwumike as well as Kayla Pedersen sitting in a zone for Stanford, driving and passing lanes can be hard to come by. Whereas Notre Dame's defensive rotations as a unit can be outstanding, Stanford's combination of athleticism, discipline, and length can be absolutely suffocating to opponents.
That begins to explain what happened to the Bulldogs in the second half.
"With that zone we just didn't have as many driving lanes and if you're not knocking down shots, you saw the shots that we were getting, those are makeable baskets and we're going into the game the leading field goal percentage team in the nation and we just didn't make shots," Graves said after the game. "With a zone, you try to pick it and those kind of things the best you can, but it's difficult to get a point guard to be able to get inside of it and try to penetrate. So it just kind of all snowballed together and a lot of it too was we couldn't make any stops at the other end and when we're not out in transition, you take a bit away from us. That's what happened. So I give them credit, they did a great job in that zone."
After surviving Stanford's hot 62.5% shooting in the first half to go into halftime only down 9 points, Gonzaga's frustration with the zone caused them to retreat to the perimeter in the second half to the the tune of 3-for-13 three point shooting. Although they are generally a finesse jump shooting team, that their already low 18.2% free throw rate fell to an even lower 11.8% in the second half is evidence of decreased aggression in getting anything going near or toward the rim.
"At halftime we talked about playing the screen differently and we spent a lot of halftime doing it and then in talking with
coaches, Amy and Kate and Bobbi, they just said, we can zone them," Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said. "And so I said, all right, well, let's look at it. It was their ball the first possession, I said, we'll stay in it as long as they're not bombing us out of it. And we were able to stay in it the whole second half."
With an effective field goal percentage of only 27.94% in the second half, Gonzaga never forced Stanford out of that zone. Meanwhile, they had an effective field goal percentage of 56.52% in the second half, which created a differential (nearly 30%) that increased from the first half (about 20%) despite not being quite as hot.
A major reason for their shooting efficiency throughout the game was the play of the Ogwumike sisters.
Stanford statistical MVP: Chiney Ogwumike's leads the way with 9-for-11 shooting in the post
With her shooting from the field in addition to a game-high free throw rate of 63.63%, Ogwumike finished with a true shooting percentage of 81.67% and a team-high 23 points. Part of her efficiency inside was certainly Stanford's guards hitting shots and opening up space inside - Cardinal guard Jeannette Pohlen shook a bit of a shooting slump to score 17 points with a game-high 85% true shooting percentage.
But an even larger part of it was that if Stanford players did miss, they cleaned up the offensive boards for second chance points. For a Gonzaga team that is typically a finesse team, it was just overwhelming.
"The Ogwumike sisters, they're very good basketball players," said Gonzaga guard Katelan Redmon. "They're really tough down there, they rebound extremely well, and they're extremely strong. So it's very hard to defend them in the first place. And then we let them get too many offensive rebounds and second chance points."
Chiney had a solid outing on the offensive boards grabbing four, which was 15.7% of those available to her, and a total of 11 rebounds. That helped Stanford to a substantial 54%-16% offensive rebounding differential in the second half, which was something else that was critical to their success on defense.
"Well I think that our rebounding and quite honestly the fact that we didn't let them do -- we didn't let them get layups, transition baskets," VanDerveer said. "And we made a decision to send three people back. And I think that was
really key. And the fact that they didn't get going and they didn't get their crowd going. We needed to really keep their
In controlling the boards on both ends, Stanford neither allowed Gonzaga to run off defensive rebounds nor find second chance opportunities off offensive rebounds. While Chiney was a key to that, it was the combination of the two sisters that overwhelmed Gonzaga as Redmon alluded to.
"Obviously Chiney is my other half and so we're like fire and ice, she was definitely on fire today," said Nneka. "And it actually got to a point when we were telling her to calm down, because she was a little bit out of control at some points. But it's okay, because she's making aggressive moves. But I'm just really proud of her."
And if Chiney's scoring was fire, Nneka's rebounding was ice.
Key player: Nneka Ogwumike dominates the boards on both ends
Nneka also finished with a double-double with 18 points and a team-high 15 boards, but her rebounding stood out: she had a remarkable team-high offensive rebounding percentage of 41.21% and tied for a team-high defensive rebounding percentage of 29.15% with Kayla Pedersen (who had 12 defensive rebounds in more minutes). With the exception of one offensive rebound, it was all the Ogwumike sisters attacking the boards.
"They're just a unique combination of strength, obviously skill, but the quickness with which they attack the ball on the boards is just phenomenal," said Graves. "We just, honestly, we just, we're not there yet to be able to matchup with these kind of teams that just have that kind of strength and athleticism inside."
But what stood out as most impressive - as always with Stanford - was just how well they executed their game plan.
Tara VanDerveer showed why she's WBCA Coach of the Year
After getting roughed up on the boards on both ends and failing to hit shots in the second half, it might seem reasonable to suggest that Gonzaga simply lost their confidence.
"Oh, it's a funny game, this game," said Graves. "And a lot of it is confidence. If you're not seeing the basketball go through, then sometimes you tighten up. It just happens. I'm not saying that they did, just as coach you look at that you know wonder, because typically we are a good shooting basketball team. We're not a 3 point shooting team, but we're a good shooting team and they just didn't go."
Whether or not Gonzaga did lose their shooter's confidence, Stanford's ability to make those halftime adjustments that systematically exploit weaknesses and minimize strengths was the key to this game. The combination of athleticism and skill in the post was an obvious advantage for the Cardinal that they exploited. And although Vandersloot accounted for a heroic 70.56% of Gonzaga's total statistical production in her final game in Spokane, Stanford held her to 4 points on 1-for-7 shooting which was a large part of Gonzaga's poor second half effort.
Stanford didn't really even play their best game - during that second half they committed turnovers on nearly 30% of their possessions while Gonzaga only committed one, a differential that is uncommonly negative for the Cardinal. All that shows is that this isn't a team that merely overwhelms opponents with talent - they are among the best prepared teams in the nation and that allows the players to implement the adjustments their coaching staff identifies as worthy of making in the moment.
"We did go over kind of our zone assignments in practice and in fact today at practice the time ran out, with 60
minutes and I just said, all right, we're going to walk through that and be prepared for it," said VanDerveer. "So we walked through it without a ball and I just said, you know, we got to be ready for it. And we have been working on our
zone a little bit I think especially coming into the NCAA tournament knowing maybe not being as familiar with players and being able to spend as much time scouting, so it worked out really well."
But the game also shows how dangerous an athletic, skilled, and versatile roster can be in the hands of a coach who is arguably one of the best basketball minds our nation has seen.
Even after Stanford beat UConn, they weren't granted the privilege of being #1 in the nation. But games like last night's game show what makes them so tough - this is a disciplined team that is not nearly as methodical and far more versatile than Stanford teams of years past, in large part because of the addition of Chiney but also because they have VanDerveer on the bench constantly making sure that they're not only striving to play their best, but also making their opponent look their worst.