Stanford's X-factor -- freshman Toni Kokenis

426834.jpg

Stanford's X-factor -- freshman Toni Kokenis

March 25, 2011

STANFORD PAGE NCAA SCOREBOARDNCAA WOMEN'S PAGE

SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) -- Toni Kokenis never generated much hype as Stanford's third-best incoming freshman last fall.

Chiney Ogwumike had the National Player of the Year pedigree and proven lineage as younger sister to Cardinal star Nnemkadi Ogwumike. Highly regarded Sara James had the All-American status and was considered the program's next point guard to succeed senior Pac-10 Player of the Year Jeanette Pohlen.

Lately, though, it has been Kokenis that coach Tara VanDerveer immediately turns to off the bench when Stanford needs a boost.

She has given the Cardinal key minutes in the biggest of games -- and that's been the case even after she sat out two weeks with a concussion.

Next up for top-seeded Stanford (31-2) in its quest for a fourth straight Final Four is a date with No. 5 North Carolina in the Spokane Regional semifinals Saturday night.

VanDerveer calls Kokenis her "sixth starter." The reliable Kokenis often plays more minutes than junior starter Lindy La Rocque.

In the Cardinal's 86-59 first-round NCAA tournament victory over UC Davis last Saturday, Kokenis knocked down three of her team's season-best 13 3-pointers on the way to 11 points in 25 minutes. She also dished out three assists.

Before that, she scored a game-high and career-best 17 points on 7-of-9 shooting as Stanford rallied in the second half to beat UCLA 64-55 in the Pac-10 tournament title game March 12.

"I just wanted to be able to come in and help contribute to the team to help us be as successful as we could be," Kokenis said of her expectations as a freshman. "I would say definitely (I have benefited from) more practice and getting more reps and playing against pressure and taking advantage of the reps you get when you are out on the court."

Her comeback has been impressive to say the least.

Kokenis was sidelined after getting fouled in the head in the closing minutes of a 64-38 win over UCLA on Jan. 20. She returned at Arizona State on Feb. 3. Then, facing the Bruins again exactly a month after her injury in Los Angeles, Kokenis scored 13 points and made three steals in 37 minutes -- her most playing time yet.

"Toni has played extremely well for us. Once she came back from when she was hit, she has really finished strong," VanDerveer said. "When you look at a lot of the top teams, it's really amazing the number of freshmen who are huge contributors. So many young players are coming into situations and playing so well."

Kokenis checked in at the 16:47 mark of the first half in a 75-49 second-round NCAA win against St. John's on Monday night, only to leave late in the half with a sprained left ankle. X-rays were negative and VanDerveer hopes to have Kokenis at full strength for Saturday's game in Spokane.

She has shown already that she is resilient and a student of the game. After the head injury, Kokenis spent more time watching video to ensure she didn't fall behind.

"Being out with my concussion was a bit of a bummer," she said. "And then coming back, I have great teammates and they really helped me feel more comfortable -- so it's just feeling more comfortable in general with our offense and what I can do to contribute to our team and what I can bring off the bench."

There's a good chance Kokenis will be in the starting lineup next season after Stanford loses Pohlen and do-everything senior Kayla Pedersen.

The departing players feel as if the program is in good hands with returners such as Kokenis to complement star sisters Nnemkadi and Chiney Ogwumike inside.

"She definitely has stepped up," Pedersen said of Kokenis. "I don't think she lets any of that affect her, like any of the hype or anything. Toni just comes in and she is fearless. She doesn't really care about anything besides getting the job done and how she can help us. If that means stepping up big for us in a game, like she did at UCLA, then that is what it is. Or if it means making the pass to the post, that is what she does. I just think that selfless mentality is really making her stand out right now."

Young Kings' inexperience rears ugly head in loss to Jazz

Young Kings' inexperience rears ugly head in loss to Jazz

SACRAMENTO -- The Sacramento Kings showed their age Wednesday night at Golden 1 Center. They couldn’t buy a basket early. They could do no wrong in the second and third quarters. And when the chips were down, they couldn’t stop a charging Utah Jazz team from pulling away for the 112-82 blowout.

Utah led by as many as 20 in the first quarter and it looked like it was going to be a long night. The Kings shot just 31.6 percent in the game’s first 12 minutes and they allowed the Jazz to knock down 5-of-11 3-pointers early.

“We started off slow and in a hole and tried to come back,” Willie Cauley-Stein said.

The Jazz pushed the lead to 24 in the opening minutes of the second quarter and then Ben McLemore happened. The fourth-year guard went off for 17 points on 7-of-8 shooting in the second as the Kings cut Utah’s lead to just seven at the intermission.

“It’s nice to see him back in there and getting rhythm and feeling good about himself,” Dave Joerger said of McLemore. “He is able at his size to get off of people that are holding. With his athleticism, he can be an effective cutter and he can be an effective pin down player.”

The 24-year-old wing finished the night with 22 points on 9-of-12 shooting, but he was one of just three Kings players to notch double-figure scoring as the ball movement dried up for long stretches.

Utah made adjustments in the second half to slow McLemore and the Kings did a poor job of responding. They over dribbled the ball, leading to just 14 assists on the night.

The Jazz on the other hand looked like a finely oiled machine. With big man Rudy Gobert anchoring the post, they made cuts at the rim and found open shooters all around the perimeter.  

“They hit shots, a lot of shots, a lot of threes,” Willie Cauley-Stein said. “That breaks the game wide open when you’re hitting threes and a lot of stuff is going in.”

Sharpshooter Rodney Hood dropped in 5-of-5 from long range, scoring 18 points in just 24 minutes of play. Gordon Hayward knocked down 3-of-5 from deep for a team-high 20 points. Overall, Utah outscored the Kings 39-6 from 3-point range.

Despite the rough start and the barrage of 3-point makes by the Jazz, Sacramento cut Utah’s lead to just two midway through the third quarter. And then the playoff bound Jazz dropped a 52-24 run on Sacramento to finish the night off.

Joerger allowed his core of young players plenty of time on the floor. Skal Labissiere played a team-high 33 minutes in the loss, coming away with nine points and seven rebounds.  

“I’m definitely learning a lot,” Labissiere said. “It’s the best way to learn to be out there against guys like that. Whenever I’m out there, I’m always learning something. I just try to give my best.”

Rookie Georgios Papagiannis added eight points and three rebounds in 20 minutes and Buddy Hield struggled for one of the few times in a Kings uniform, scoring just two points on 1-for-7 shooting.

It’s a process. With the playoff chatter over and done with, the Kings are bound to have a few more night’s like this in the final seven games of the season as they transition to a full youth movement.

 

How Warriors became better team right before the return of Kevin Durant

How Warriors became better team right before the return of Kevin Durant

When Kevin Durant returns, which could happen as soon as next week, the Warriors will be an appreciably better team than they were when he left.

Better because in Durant’s absence, veteran wing Andre Iguodala found the best of his game and fully regained his shooting confidence.

Better because David West, who spent the first two quarters of the season acclimating to his new teammates and the third on the injury list, has settled in and turned up his fire and production to a level that pleads for more playing time.

Better because Stephen Curry is dancing and Klay Thompson is cooking and Draymond Green is destroying opposing offenses.

Better because everybody on this team can sense the postseason and is making the mental adjustment, while knowing they’ll get an emotional bounce from Durant’s presence on the floor.

“Obviously, you hate to see KD go down; he’s going to be back soon,” Curry told reporters after a 110-98 win over the Spurs in San Antonio. “But we never really lost confidence in ourselves. There was no panic. We’ve just battled.”

Consider that the Warriors, who own the best record in the NBA, are coming off two nights during which they also proved to be the best team. Going into Houston and San Antonio on successive nights, they extended their seven-game win streak to nine, the longest active streak at a time when all playoff teams wish to peak.

By wiping out a 22-point deficit to a Spurs team that simply doesn’t allow that but did anyway even with Green completely off his offensive game.

And this was done with Durant observing and cheering from the bench in street clothes while also learning more about his teammates and appreciating what they’ve been able to accomplish.

Most notably, as a team, what they’ve done on defense. After recovering from the body blow that was losing Durant, losing five of seven in the process, the Warriors have pulled off a dazzling stretch during which they’ve taken apart all comers.

Prior to holding the Spurs to 41 percent from the field, the Warriors limited the explosive Rockets to 38.8 percent, the Grizzlies to 44.7 (34.8 in the decisive second half), the Kings to 48.2, the Mavericks to 35.9, the Thunder to 42.5, the Bucks to 40.4, the Magic to 37.2 and the 76ers to 43.8.

“We play a finesse style . . . but when we’re at our best, you talk about our defense,” Curry said. “It’s about having each other’s back, trying to do little things, physically, to keep teams out of the paint and off the glass.”

What has happened is most everybody in the playing rotation has grown in the absence of Durant. And while some had to if the Warriors were to withstand his loss, that they managed to do so is significant. The evidence is visible and palpable, never more than late Wednesday night.

“We have what it takes to win all sorts of ways,” Curry said. “Whether you’re down 15 and can’t figure out what’s going on in the first quarter, or you put together a beautiful performance for 48 minutes, it doesn’t matter. Night in and night out, you’ve just got to be ready to play."

At no point this season have the Warriors had reason to feel as good as they do returning home to Oracle Arena, where they will play six of their final seven games. Winning five more games gives them the No. 1 overall seed, regardless of what the Spurs do.

They’re on top of their game and they’re a few games away from adding the man who was their best player through the first 60 games.

By all appearances and insinuations, Durant will be back for the final two or three games of the regular season. That beats any trade-deadline deal eight days a week.