Arizona State proving it's for real
By Maureen Mullen, Special to CNNSI.com
Added hype, tradition, experience and an AP ranking don't give you wins in the Pac-10 conference. Arizona State has realized this phenomenon more than anyone. However, after scoring victories over Oregon and Oregon State this weekend, the Sun Devils finally broke into the national rankings debuting at No. 22 in the AP poll. Arizona State hasn't been ranked since the 1980's.
The Pac-10 coaches didn't need the Associated Press to tell them that the Sun Devils are the real deal, Arizona State's six straight wins, and trio of super newcomers make the team to beat in conference play.
The Sun Devil's have not won six straight since the 1991-1992 season. While other teams spend years carefully crafting a well-experienced program, this year's Arizona State squad is largely lead by some new faces in the conference.
One can not say enough about Arizona State's transfer pair of Amanda Levens and Melody Johnson. In the duo, head coach Charli Turner Thorne, has not just one player, but two that consistently score double figures in each contest. Add in freshman Betsy Boardman, and you already have a squad more versatile than most of the Pac-10 headliners.
Levens and Johnson, while new to the conference, have a wealth of experience in college basketball. Johnson was a starter for University of Colorado and averaged eight points a game as sophomore. Levens, hailing from Old Dominion, has starting experience in NCAA tournament play. Both will be crucial as the Sun Devils attempt to claim their first ever Pac-10 Championship.
Bay Area breaks out
Perhaps it is telling that one of the two teams to beat Arizona State was Stanford, and they did so in convincing fashion, destroying the Sun Devils 92-64, before falling in a three game conference losing streak, forcing them to play a struggling game of catch-up. However, after a five game winning streak of their own, including the two critical road victories over UCLA and USC this weekend, the Cardinal looks again to be a top contender in the Pac-10.
"Our heads are finally into it," said Stanford junior Lindsey Yamasaki. "If we are focused, we will win."
Something has clicked for Yamasaki, and the Cardinal. Their heightened level of play could be no better witnessed in the first half in the win over the Women of Troy, when the Cardinal played arguably the best basketball it has all season. Behind steady contributions spread around the roster the Cardinal skyrocketed to a 55-29 first-half lead.
The Cardinal took advantage of the one-on-one match-ups with USC, driving into the lane. Stanford's high percentage shots led to a whopping 72.7 percentage mark from the field, compared with USC's dismal 29.4 percent. In the game, five Stanford players reached double figures, with Yamasaki leading the way with 28. Freshman Nicole Powell continues to be the all-around superstar for the Cardinal, and leads the Pac-10 in rebounding, while ranking third for assists.
However, while the Cardinal is almost expected to succeed, their Bay Area travel buddies, California, almost always seem to serve as the weak link. This weekend, the Golden Bears weren't forced to the backseat, as they two swept USC and UCLA.
Leading California are senior guards Courtney Johnson and Kenya Corley, who while small, are capable of slashing through the lane and making some big time baskets. Johnson came up with 22 points versus USC, while Corley led the Bears with 25 over UCLA. Both games gave first year coach Caren Horstmeyer, a few more nervous moments that she would have liked, but their close nature gave California some added confidence.
Stanford isn't the only team that boasts a balanced roster, Washington has also dribbled its way to first half success, however rather than having one or two stars, is dependent on a spread out scoring arsenal.
Leading the way are senior Megan Franza and sophomore Loree Payne, who entered the 2001 conference season as the Pac-10's top returning scorers. The two leaders haven't disappointed, in addition to generating necessary points for the Huskies, their experience has gotten Washington out of more than one sticky situation.
Adding to the Huskies' balance are a pair of freshman recruits that have changed the mediocre Husky squad to one worthy of sitting among the top contenders for the conference title.
Guard Giuliana Mendiola, runs the Washington offense. In addition to freeing Franza and Payne from point guard duties, allowing them to focus more on scoring responsibilities, Mendiola adds the added dimension of strong rebounding to the Washington squad.
Coupling with Mendiola is 6-foot-4 Andrea Lalum. Lalum's size has been a huge boost to the Washington squad, and has allowed them to be more competitive with some of the bigger Pac-10 teams.
With seniors LeAnn Sheets and Jill Pimley, and sophomore Emily Autrey also capable of having some big games for the Huskies, Washigton is one of the Pac-10's deepest squads.
The week ahead
On the eve of the second half of the season, it is time for the great teams in the conference to break away from the good teams. However with several definitive battles this weekend, it will be tough for a true champion-worthy team to emerge.
Stanford is in arguably the most pressing position this weekend. The Cardinal looks to redeem its losses to Oregon and Oregon State, as the Beavers and the Cucks travel down to the Bay Area. Stanford has lost only one match at home all season, and if it plays well should be able to take the two squads.
The Arizona schools will travel up to Washington, as Arizona State tries to redeem it's home loss to the Huskies. Don't count out the Wildcats. With two wins this weekend Arizona could find itself on top of the standings.
In Southern California, USC and UCLA meet for the second time, to permanently decide who has the right to Los Angeles women's basketball bragging rights. If freshman Ebony Hoffman can have another big game for the Women of Troy, USC should be able to take away the win.
Maureen Mullen is a reporter for The Stanford Daily, the student newspaper of Stanford University.