When Stanford University visited the University of Washington about halfway through Pac-10 conference play this year, I decided to keep track of something different: the number of times point guard Jeannette Pohlen drove inside the three point line.
I had watched her for a number of games before that and was struck by the fact that she seemed to do nothing more than dribble the ball up court and just stand at the top of the key swinging the ball. So I vividly recall that against Washington - and granted, it was a sloppy game - she crossed the three point line twice in the entire game, excluding fast breaks. Even on fast breaks, it looked like she tried to spend as little time in the paint as possible.
The point is not that Pohlen is a bad point guard, by any means -- among the most impressive things about her performance against Washington is that she was very decisive and just whipped the ball to the open player, acknowledging that one of the best ways to wear down a defense is to make them pay for leaving players open. Nor is it that I ever felt Pohlen was incapable of driving to the basket - in fact, playing for a team like Stanford, opting to simply bring the ball across mid-court, initiate the offense, and then just swing the ball is probably a good point guard decision.
The point is that she almost never even attempted to attack the basket and yet it struck me as odd because it always seemed that she was skilled enough to do it more.
So while on one hand her game-winning fast break layup against Xavier University in the Sacramento Regional Final might have justifiably struck some as a departure from what they expect from Pohlen, on the other hand that was exactly what I was waiting to see from her. As Sports Illustrated's Ann Killian wrote on Saturday, it's less of an unlikely breakout performance from Pohlen and more a matter of her demonstrating the full range of what she's capable of contributing to a basketball team.
In last night's 73-66 Final Four victory over Oklahoma University that earned Stanford the right to challenge undefeated University of Connecticut in the National Championship, Pohlen - and in particular, her ability to drive and create opportunities for herself and others - might have been a more significant factor in Stanford's victory than people have recognized.
Of course, people will look at the box score and notice that Stanford's starting backcourt of Pohlen and Rosalyn Gold-Onwude combined to go 4-18 from the field, with Pohlen shooting 1-7 from the field and 0-3 from the three point line.
"4 for 18," said Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer after the game. "That doesn't sound too good. I think I have confidence in our guards. I have confidence in how Ros is playing and Jeanette, and I think if we're playing Connecticut or Baylor, whoever it will be, we're playing for a national championship. And these kids will -- I think they'll really come out and play and relax and just knock them down."
Although the skeptics among us might dismiss VanDerveer's comment as nothing more than post-game coach-speak, there is some validity to her statement: Pohlen was actually quite reliable against Oklahoma despite a poor shooting performance. In fact, despite shooting 1-7 Pohlen was a solid fourth contributor to the team's overall production, accounting for nearly 10% of the team's overall production. Scanning over to the right side of the boxscore provides some insight into the value of Pohlen in last night's game.
Charlie Crème noted that one of the key stats of the first half was that Stanford only had two turnovers. They finished the game with a grand total of 7 turnovers for a turnover percentage of just under 7%. That's remarkable, even by Stanford's lofty standards.
When a team controls the ball that well, the point guard certainly deserves a large portion of the credit, perhaps in ways that can't possibly be accounted for statistically. However, in Pohlen's case, the statistics do reveal a strong point guard story.
The simplest way to look at Pohlen's performance as a point guard is to note the 5 assists and 0 turnovers, which is quite easily identified as a solid assist-to-turnover ration. But the fact that she played 40 minutes at the point guard position and managed to finish with no turnovers - especially given Oklahoma's mix of defensive pressure using their athletic guards - is actually outstanding. The value of balancing assists and turnovers so well in big minutes is what John Hollinger's pure point rating accounts for. In the Oklahoma game, Pohlen posted a pure point rating of 8.33, which is in the elite range of point guard performances for women's college basketball players. Sure, she didn't do much other than set up others and take care of the ball, but on a team like Stanford and a night on which Nneka Ogwumike had an other-worldly performance - she accounted for 50% of Stanford's overall production - Pohlen played her position very, very well. That's noteworthy for a person who is not necessarily a born point guard.
Women's NCAA tournament: Jeanette Pohlen helps Stanford Cardinal get the point - ESPN
With Pac-10 Player of the Year Nneka Ogwumike, and fellow All-American candidates Jayne Appel and Kayla Pedersen on the team, Pohlen's impact might be underestimated by some observers. Which is a big mistake. "She is not necessarily a born point guard, like when I think of coaching someone like Dawn Staley or other guards out there," coach Tara VanDerveer said. "But she really makes our team go."
Her similarly errant shooting backcourt mate - Gold-Onwude went 2-9 last night -- was significant as well, containing Oklahoma forward Nyeshia Stevenson's perimeter scoring. Although Stevenson did get to the free throw line 11 times off drives, the Pac-10 Co-Defensive Player of the Year did limit the three-point shooting from Stevenson that hurt Oklahoma's previous opponents.
"Stevenson is an excellent 3-point shooter," said VanDerveer after the game. "And Ros Gold-Onwude worked her tail off to make sure she didn't get 3s."
Again, we could quibble with VanDerveer's assertion that Stevenson is an "excellent" three-point shooter - she shot a modest 33% from downtown during the season and has really worked on her shot even to get to that point. However, prior to last night's game Stevenson was shooting almost 40% from the three point line, certainly qualifying as a threat. Neutralizing Stevenson's long-range shooting in a game that was within three points with under a minute left had as much an impact on the game as anything else.
None of this to say that Pohlen was the single most significant factor in the game -- obviously, Ogwumike carried the team and the more significant factor than ball control was definitely Stanford's offensive rebounding margin of just under 13%. Yet looking ahead to Stanford's much-anticipated National Championship rematch with UConn, the guard play of Pohlen and Gold-Onwude figures to play a huge role. In their December game, the inability of Stanford's guards to handle UConn's pressure was a huge factor in their second half collapse. Whether the confidence that Pohlen has shown to this point in the tournament will translate to a strong performance against UConn is unknown, but at the very least they should be considered a major part of why Stanford made it to the championship game.
- Per the NCAA's Oklahoma game notes: "Oklahoma’s nine turnovers was a record low in an NCAA Tournament game by a Sooner team. In addition, Stanford’s eight turnovers set an OU opponent record low in an NCAA Tournament game."