With Stanford University looming on the schedule, University of Washington coach Tia Jackson claimed that she was not going to approach the game any differently.
"I hope not," said Jackson before Tuesday's practice. "I hope not. I hope we go in and approach it with a game plan like we do every game. I think it's hard maybe for a group of kids 18-22 to kinda overlook the fact they are Stanford - they're very good. They've got a proven mark over their history under Tara and they're number 2 in the country and rightfully so - extremely good. And we've just gotta come in and see if we can't knock them off their game a little bit."
Unfortunately, knocking Stanford off their game is easier said than done.
Thus far this season, there's only one known strategy that works for certain to beat Stanford: be UConn.
UConn's 80-68 non-conference win over Stanford is probably the blueprint for beating them. After a close first half, UConn blew the game open by employing full court pressure, smothering the guards and disrupting what is normally a precision Stanford offense. Theoretically, anyone can employ that strategy. The problem is that not everyone has Maya Moore and Tina Charles in their frontcourt to take away Stanford's ability to score and rebound inside.
And aside from sharing a mascot name, Washington certainly doesn't share many similarities with UConn.
That's why Washington guard Sami Whitcomb draws inspiration from UCLA's narrow loss against Stanford, losing 65-61. UCLA wasn't able to control the boards like UConn, but their defensive pressure created turnovers.
"I watched the UCLA game against them and so it's nice when you see other teams that are not just UConn give ‘em a run for their money," said Whitcomb. "They're a beatable team just like every team, it's just figuring out how to do that and executing it. So I think we just have to focus on our strengths and what we can do against them and how we can slow them down and hurt them on defense and on offense."
UCLA did essentially take Stanford out of their game - they held them to a 43% eFg% and won the turnover battle. While the problem again is that Washington isn't exactly like UCLA, as Whitcomb says, it must be helpful for game planning.
"Nikki's doing a great job mixing up their defenses," said Jackson. "We don't have all the defenses that they have. I know it throws off Gold-Onwude and their sub point guard coming in."
So perhaps there is a pattern emerging - that Stanford's biggest weakness is their guard play.
Perhaps there is hope in that for the Washington Huskies.
First, just to be clear, when speaking of Stanford we're talking about relative weaknesses - it's not that Gold-Onwude, Jeanette Pohlen or JJ Hones are having terrible games. At this point, they're just not having great games.
"Stanford does not have a healthy, true, point guard," wrote C of the Stanford Women's Basketball Blog in an email. "Teams watching game film can see this about our guards and we have traditionally had trouble against full court pressure in the last few years. It is a problem Stanford needs to solve in the coming seasons."
Against UConn, Gold-Onwude and Hones combined for 8 assists and 5 turnovers, with Hones getting the majority of the minutes. Against UCLA, they combined for 3 assists and 4 turnovers, but Gold-Onwude was much more of a scorer - and a very effective one overall - with 18 points on 5-12 shooting. The scoring outburst was probably a welcome addition to the performance.
"Ros Gold-Onwude is a true point guard with decent ball handling skills but has a weakness to take too long to hit an open player (Maybe she thinks too much)," wrote C. "She also can get rattled with defensive pressure. Her offensive game is inconsistent, and when Stanford needs points, she is usually pulled."
Pohlen was a relative non-factor in both games - shooting a combined 4-15 with 6 assists and 6 turnovers.
"Jeanette Pohlen, a converted forward to the point guard spot brings some interesting strengths," wrote C. "She pushes the ball up the court fearlessly and can make a two-handed chest pass from foul line to foul line to hit her player for an easy two on the fast break. When left unchecked, she can create some quick and exciting fast break rallies. When left unchecked. Her glaring weakness is in her ball handling skills when she is pressured."
So Stanford's problem -- which was evident against UConn - is that in their toughest games, teams have found ways to exploit these weaknesses, which certainly hampers their ability to run a precision offense.
The problem for Washington is that they neither have quite have the athletes of UConn nor do they have quite the personnel that UCLA has.
"UCLA and us in comparison, we're just not the same team," said Jackson on Tuesday, as she was still preparing for Cal. "But we do pride ourselves defensively. We're gonna look at a few more games here and figure out the proper game plan. I can't say that I have it yet. But I'm gonna really study the next few games here really closely."
Compounding the problem - for UCLA especially and likely for Washington - is that even if you do take away Stanford's guard play, there's always forward Nneka Ogwumike.
As the Pac-10's reigning Player of the Week, there is probably no need to recite her statistics here.
Ogwumike's impact is clear.
Perhaps Ogumike's impact is best described by her performance against Washington State on Thursday.
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The Pacific-10 Conference’s leading scorer went to the bench twice to get treatment, came back wearing a protective rubber sleeve on her elbow, then proceeded to shred whatever defense the Cougars tried to throw at her. Ogwumike had 22 points and 13 rebounds, Kayla Pedersen added 13 points and 10 rebounds, and the second-ranked Cardinal rolled to an 80-43 victory Thursday night in Stanford, Calif.
The confidence to dominate a game and will her team to victory is a welcome change for the Cardinal this season.
"Tara [gave] Nneka free rein to "create" offensive, such as drive in and use her superior leaping abilities to score baskets instead of following a set offense play," wrote C. "The last two years Stanford would sometimes get "stuck" always following the same rigid offense scheme, and in this day and age of every good coach breaking down game films, defenses had an easy blue print of what was going on."
Ogwumike's ability to drive to the basket or take a 15-footer this year makes her extremely difficult to guard. The best comparison that Washington has seen might be Arizona's Ify Ibekwe, who similarly was able to use an array of drives, jump shots, scoop shots, and creative footwork in the post to score from the field and get to the line - she finished with 16 points including 6-8 shooting from the free throw line and 15 rebounds in Arizona's loss to Washington. In other words, it's easy to imagine Ogwumike having a similar game, if not better.
Perhaps the biggest difference between this year's Stanford team and those of the past is that Ogwumike has supplanted center Jayne Appel in the low post with Appel now playing the high post more often, according to C, which could be at least partially responsible for Appel's decreased production.
But of course Appel is still a weapon teams must contend with.
"The thing about Jayne is that she's going to score no matter what you do and you just can't get down on yourself," said Washington center and Bay Area native Laura McLellan who played AAU with Appel during high school. "You just have to do the best that you can at keeping your hands up and altering. She's gonna get her 10 points a game, 15 poitns a game. But if we can get there we can stay between her and the basket and we can put our hands up, box her out, not give her any second chance opportunities, I think we'll be in good shape."
Washington does have a new addition of their own this year to help content with Appel in center Regina Rogers, who says she's stronger than even her trainers thought she would be.
"In Regina we have a lot of muscle on her, we can try to muscle her a little bit," said McLellan, who grew up following Stanford. "It will be hard for her to hopefully get around us on box outs - if Regina can put a body on her, I don't see anyone getting around her. That's one thing we have on our side is a little bit of size."
But laying out all of this establishes the problem with beating Stanford: take away the guards, take away arguably the best player in the conference this season, and then take away a player projected as a top 2 pick in the WNBA draft.
It's no small task, especially if you're not UConn.
Nevertheless, UW is ready to put last year's debacle behind them and compete.
"Stanford's obviously a very good team - second in the nation - and there's no doubt about it that they're picked to win the Pac-10," said Washington guard Kristi Kingma. "But that doesn't mean anything until you get on the court and that's why you play the games."
Update & note: these quotes were obtained Tuesday as the team was still preparing for Thursday's game against Cal and most players had not yet seen Stanford tape, though they had watched a few games of their own.