Stanford forward Jayne Appel, goes up for a shot as Ohio State center Jantel Lavender attempts to block in the second half during a women's NCAA tournament regional championship college basketball game in Berkeley, Calif., Saturday, March 28, 2009.
Paul Sakuma / AP Enlarge
BERKELEY, Calif. When two of the nation's best post players collided, Jayne Appel came up a whole lot bigger and Stanford's 6-foot-4 center is the largest reason her Cardinal are one victory away from a second straight trip to the Final Four.
Appel had 25 points and 11 rebounds while dominating her low-post showdown with Ohio State's Jantel Lavender, leading Stanford on a remarkable late run to finish its 84-66 victory Saturday night in the Berkeley Regional semifinals.
Appel and Lavender are their respective conferences' players of the year, and their talented teammates look to them for both inspiration and big baskets. Appel, the junior with neon-pink fingernails and an endless array of low-post moves, provided more of both, keeping Stanford safe from another disappointing NCAA tournament loss in its home Bay Area.
"I thought the difference was Jayne in the second half," Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said. "We went to her, and she delivered. She struggled a little bit in the first half, didn't finish some shots that she normally does. In the second half, she really showed great confidence, great poise, and just put the team on her back."
Jillian Harmon had 16 points, six assists and countless hustle plays including four steals for the Cardinal (32-4), while Nnemkadi Ogwumike added 15 points in their 19th consecutive victory.
Harmon, Ogwumike and Appel scored 41 of the Cardinal's 47 second-half points but Appel's combination of brute force and delicate footwork counteracted Stanford's lack of balance. She hit just three shots in the first half, but came back with 18 points after halftime.
"I came out after halftime, and I believe every person on the team said something to me or gave me a high-five," Appel said. "I had to keep playing for them."
In front of a crowd mostly filled with red-clad fans of their school just across San Francisco Bay, the Cardinal advanced to a meeting Monday night with fourth-seeded Iowa State, which made an improbable comeback late in its 69-68 win over Michigan State.
Stanford took its first significant lead midway through the second half, going up 53-42 with a 10-2 run shortly before Lavender went to the bench with her fourth foul. Lavender missed more than 6 minutes before returning with 6:52 to play, but Prahalis' relentless driving and defense actually trimmed the Cardinal's advantage during that stretch, and Star Allen's free throw cut Stanford's lead to 66-62 with 5:39 left.
Stanford then broke it open in the final 4 minutes, going back to its triangle offense to create chances down low. The Cardinal finished on a 14-2 run that included three low-post baskets by the big Appel, who emphatically blocked a shot by Lavender with 2:24 left to crush Ohio State's comeback hopes.
"When (Appel) gets deep, she's very effective," Lavender said. "I got some early fouls, and I couldn't be as physical as I wanted to be. It was frustrating, not being able to be physical."
Lavender had 15 points and seven rebounds while battling foul trouble for the Buckeyes (29-6), who fell just shy of Ohio State's first regional final since 1993. Lavender rarely lost low-post matchups during the Big Ten season, but she also rarely faced such serious foul trouble, committing four fouls just three previous times this season and never fouling out.
Samantha Prahalis scored 19 points in the final game of her sensational freshman season for Ohio State, but the point guard managed just six assists and didn't get much help from her other teammates, who were led by reserve Sarah Schulze's 12 points.
"We let it slip away," Prahalis said. "A couple of the defensive stops we didn't get, a couple of shots didn't go down."
With strong second-half play capped by the decisive surge, the Cardinal won perhaps the most intriguing matchup in the round of 16, matching two powerhouse top-10 schools that won regular-season and conference tournament titles earlier in the month.
Stanford hasn't lost since its last appearance at Haas Pavilion on Jan. 18, when Cal edged the Cardinal by three points. The loss created a rallying cry for VanDerveer, who told her team to set a goal to get back to Berkeley in the postseason.
"It was definitely favorable," Ogwumike said. "It was almost like we were at home, (but) I feel no matter where you play, it doesn't matter. It's all what you leave on the court. Of course there were a lot of fans here, but really it is just our players and our coaches."
Much of the first half resembled the ideal up-and-down game for both clubs, whose post players run with uncommon agility. The score stayed close even when Prahalis and Lavender both picked up their second fouls late in the first half, with Ohio State's reserves keeping the halftime deficit to 37-35.
Stanford's tree mascot didn't get up to any Berkeley hijinks comparable to its citation here in 2006 for public intoxication during a basketball game, although an overzealous male cheerleader accidentally backflipped into a photographer on the baseline during the first half, knocking both men to the ground.