Xavier point guard Special Jennings put it best after their 89-52 loss to #9/8 Stanford University at Maples Pavilion this afternoon: they didn't play well at all and the game was seemingly over in the first four minutes.
"We just didn't show up today," said Jennings, who finished with 12 points for #4/4 Xavier. "I have nothing else to really say. We just did not show up today. We did not play the way we are capable and the way that we are known to play. We just did not play Xavier basketball today."
Unfortunately for Xavier, Stanford did show up and turned what was supposed to be a rematch of a thrilling Elite Eight game into an unexpectedly uncompetitive blowout.
After a slow start in their blowout of USF last Wednesday and falling to #9/8 in the rankings, Stanford looked better in just about every way imaginable today. But as coach Tara VanDerveer noted after both the USF win and today's win, a large part of what made this game different was the simple fact of having their standard lineup back again.
Kayla Pedersen was showing no ill-effects after sitting out the DePaul game with what appeared to be concussion-like symptoms and Chiney Ogwumike was back in the lineup and able to facilitate the offense against Xavier's 1-3-1 zone in the high post.
"When they were in their 1-3-1 zone, it's kinda crucial that we get the ball in the middle," said Stanford point guard Jeanette Pohlen about Chiney Ogwumike's impact on the game. "She was looking for the ball and looking to pass outside and inside. So anytime you have somebody flash in the middle, it's always very helpful."
Everybody was comparing this game to their road losses to DePaul and Tennessee that stalled VanDerveer's quest for 800, but really Stanford looked even better today than they did against USF even if the score doesn't immediately demonstrate that. And playing as well as they did today wasn't the result of simply having one player back in the lineup; as VanDerveer alluded to, this was about having the unit back in tact and today's game was the clearest evidence you'll see of Stanford's unit being greater than the simple sum of its parts.
Key statistic: Stanford shot 60% from the field in the second half to put Xavier away
Although both teams talked about Stanford's start to the game in which they came out far more focused than they had in the past three road games, the statement they made this game was about their ability to play for 40 minutes. And that more than anything else is what made this on so impressive - not only did they maintain that intensity they started with, but they seemed to keep taking it up a few notches as the game went on.
"In the USF game we did come out a little slow, a little, I guess, passive," said Pohlen. "But I think today we just kinda kept it going for 40 minutes - we started off right away, trying to get things going right away and that's really what we need to do the rest of the season."
Stanford shot 21-for-35 from the field in the second half (60%) but also shot 7-for-13 from the three point line (53.84%). If you weight their shooting percentage with the added value of three point shots, they shot an astounding effective field goal percentage of 70%. After shooting only 38.2% in the first half, that second half performance is a large reason why the Cardinal ended the game shooting close to 50%.
A large part of that was certainly having their full unit back in tact, but in the second half it was also about getting easy baskets in transition.
Stanford statistical MVP: Jeanette Pohlen controlled the game masterfully
In addition to shooting 7-for-13 from beyond the arc in the second half, Stanford also scored 15 points off turnovers in the second half - with 7 of Xavier's 8 turnovers coming off steals - to boost their shooting efficiency.
"We really got running on them," said Pohlen. "We got a lot of fast break layups and tried to keep running on them the whole game."
And that balanced offensive execution in the second half - a balance of uptempo basketball and half court execution - only scratches the surface of what made Jeanette Pohlen's performance as a point guard so outstanding. She managed the tempo beautifully, picking her spots to push ahead through an overwhelmed Xavier defense, swinging the ball to open three point shooters, and driving the gaps to kick to open shooters.
"I thought in the beginning we contested their shots on the perimeter fine, but as the game got going they really got open threes and they made them," said Xavier coach Kevin McGuff.
As much as Pohlen did to facilitate Stanford's offense, she also looked far more aggressive in looking for her own shot. Pohlen scored 19 points on 7-for-13 shooting in addition to her six assists. And while her true shooting percentage of 64.36% was the second highest in the game, she also had a game-high 71.42% 2-point percentage, which is intuitively outstanding for a guard. And those two-point shots weren't just a matter of getting a ton of transition layups - she also aggressively looked to post up Xavier's smaller guards and scored twice off of that.
And her performance didn't end there: She had a team-high 8 defensive rebounds for a team-high defensive rebounding percentage of 22%. And that she was able to get any rebounds is impressive given the way that Nneka Ogwumike controlled the paint.
Key player: Nneka Ogwumike dominates the paint on both ends of the floor.
Entering this game, the rebounding battle figured to be crucial with Phillips being by far the best rebounder in the game to date.
But Nneka Ogwumike simply outworked everyone on the boards.
In addition to scoring a game-high 23 points on 9-for-15 shooting, she had a game-high 5 offensive rebounds for an offensive rebounding percentage of 18.61%, second on the team to sister Chiney's 19.4% offensive rebounding percentage (4 offensive rebounds). The rebounding advantage that Stanford was able to establish in the first half - they outrebounded Xavier 36% to 20% on the offensive boards - was just one part of what they did to contain Xavier's twin towers of Amber Harris and Ta'Shia Phillips.
Xavier statistical MVP: Amber Harris bounces back from concussion symptoms
The Cardinal quickly establishing a 7-0 lead to start this afternoon's game against the Xavier Musketeers, not only with offensive execution but also with outstanding defensive play on Ta'Shia Phillips in the post.
"It clicked when we just automatically doubled Ta'Shia Phillips on one of the first plays of the game," said Pohlen. "You can't leave a player like that and Amber Harris alone by themselves and I think we were very focused on that and very determined to not let them be alone and help out whoever was guarding them."
She's not exaggerating when she says the doubles were automatic - it didn't matter where Phillips caught the ball, Cardinal defenders came from different directions each time with a double team.
So it seemed safe to assume that things would change with 6-foot-5 center Amber Harris entering the game at the 16:26 mark - she didn't start as a precautionary measure because she missed practice on Monday with concussion symptoms. But it stood to reason that the Cardinal couldn't maintain that kind of pressure against both Harris and Phillips.
And Harris did make an immediate impact - she scored 9 points in the first half and finished with a team-high 18 points on 6-for-11 shooting. She finished with three offensive rebounds and a team-high offensive rebounding percentage of 9.57%. But as well as she played, what stands out is the team-high 5 turnovers - the Cardinal continued their pressure, particularly when Harris was on the floor without Phillips and just continued to force Harris into bad decisions.
For all Harris did do, it comes right back to what both Jennings and coach McGuff said after the game - Xavier never responded to Stanford's intensity, never found a rhythm and their field goal percentage fell to 26.7% in the second half and 0-for-7 from beyond the arc while Stanford caught fire. Even the fact that Ta'Shia Phillips didn't have near the offensive rebounding or scoring impact one might expect is a sign that the game came down to both Stanford outplaying them and them not responding.
Although you hear many coaches and players talking about putting a game behind them after a game this bad, McGuff is doing the exact opposite, not even trying to mask their performance with coach-speak.
"We have to look at this very closely and learn from it," said McGuff. "We did not handle adversity well today. We did not stay together. We didn't stay within the framework of the things that make us a great team. So that was trouble. And so we've gotta learn from that.
"We had a stretch last year around this time where we didn't play well in a couple of games and we really got better from that. And that's what we gotta do now."