Saturday, March 17, 2012

Stanford overpowers Hampton in NCAA Tournament

Hampton brought hundreds of fans, its bangn' band and sensational cheerleaders to ODU's Constant Center for Saturday's NCAA first-round encounter with mighty Stanford.

What the Lady Pirates didn't bring was their 'A" game.

Hampton coach David Six conceded his team would need something close to a perfect performance to take down the top-seeded Cardinal. Once it became clear the No. 16 Lady Pirates couldn't quite pull that off, it was just a matter of time before Stanford pulled away for a 73-51 victory before a crowd of 4,258.

"We were like that pitcher who doesn't have his best stuff," Six said. "So they just wore us down."

After Choicetta McMillian's 3-pointer got Hampton to within a point at 22-21 with 6:57 left in the first half, All-American forward Nneka Ogwumike led the Cardinal on a 13-0 run that opened things up.

Six said without looking at the tape he could recall three different possessions during that run where Hampton's defensive rotation came within inches of getting a steal.

Usually, Hampton's superior ability to recover keeps them in play defensively. Against this team, though, Hampton had to have those steals, because once Stanford got the ball to its preferred scoring areas,
particularly in the post, the smaller Lady Pirates (26-5) had few answers. The 6-2 Ogwumike had 22 points on 8-of-12 shooting in the first half alone, a 20-minute stretch during which the Cardinal made 64 percent of their shots.

Stanford led by 15 at intermission, by 15 with 15 minutes to go and by 30 midway through the second half before cruising to its 29th straight win. The Cardinal (32-1) now move on to a second-round date with West Virginia Monday (24-9) at 7 p.m.

The Lady Pirates, meanwhile, finished the 2011-12 season with a school record for wins, a third straight MEAC Tournament title and the consensus opinion that they were significantly undervalued by the folks who seed the NCAA Tournament.

But Saturday's game also brought an end to the Hampton careers of McMillian, Jericka Jenkins and Melanie Warner, three of the main catalysts for the Lady Pirates' rise to MEAC power and national relevance.

"You know what? I started thinking about (not having them) at the start of this season," Six said. "They're good people, most of all, and I'm going to miss them tremendously. But they certainly have taken me on the ride of my life."

Like Six, we also struggle to picture the Lady Pirates without McMillian's dead-eye shooting and the all-around excellence of Jenkins and Warner. But Saturday's game may have showcased the national coming-out of forward Alyssa Bennett (a team-high 16 points), the only Lady Pirate whose high school resume matched those of the Cardinal. Bennett was ranked No. 32 in ESPN's Top 100 high school recruits in 2009.

"They have 12 Parade All-Americans; we have Alyssa," Six said.

While Stanford's defense successfully neutralized Jenkins and McMillian, Bennett's athleticism allowed her to pretty much get where and what she wanted. She made just 7 of 20 shots, but generally displayed the range of skills that, assuming she continues to develop, should make her an extremely tough matchup for the next two seasons.

We're quite confident that any combination of players Six puts out on the floor will continue Hampton's tradition of lockdown defense - that is, if they're interested in staying on the floor. So even without the three highly decorated departing seniors, don't be surprised if Hampton turns up in the NCAA Tournament yet again next season.

Only this time,  hopefully as something higher than a No. 16 seed.

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