Stanford's Kokenis Ascends To Important Role

by Michelle Smith

There's not much about Toni Kokenis' ascension for the Stanford women's basketball team that seems slow or deliberate.

If you haven't been paying close attention all year, it looks like she came in with the force of a meteor, on to the floor, the impact of her arrival felt immediately.

But Kokenis, the Cardinal freshman guard, has had a freshman season in many ways.

"Two steps forward, one step back," said Cardinal coach Tara VanDerveer.

 And the fact that she's saved her best play for the last, most important part of the season is a testament to both comfort and persistence.

"I have felt a lot more comfortable with our offense and what I can do to help the team," Kokenis said.

Kokenis has been a spark plug off the bench for the Cardinal the past few weeks.

The Oak Brook, Ill., native has scored in double digits in five of Stanford's last seven games after scoring more than 10 points only twice in the previous 22 games she'd played. She's shooting 64.3 percent from the floor during that same stretch.

Her 17 points against UCLA in the second half of last week's Pac-10 Tournament championship game propelled the Cardinal to cut down the nets at Staples Center.

Saturday night in her first NCAA Tournament game, she finished with 11 points - including a season-high three 3-pointers - in 25 minutes on the floor, playing a key role in the Cardinal's 86-59 win over UC Davis.

Against St. John's on Monday night, look for Kokenis off the bench to bring her quickness to the Stanford's perimeter game. But there's more to Kokenis than speed, says senior teammate Kayla Pedersen.

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

Kokenis' first season at Stanford could have gone the other direction.

After strong showings against Gonzaga and Texas, VanDerveer put her in Stanford's starting lineup.

"She wasn't ready," the coach admits now. "I don't think our team was ready for two freshmen on the floor, and Chiney (Ogwumike) was going to be our freshmen on the floor at that point."

The Cardinal went to Chicago to face DePaul and Kokenis was in the starting lineup, playing in front of a few hundred family and friends. Stanford was playing without senior Pedersen, who was out with concussion, missing a game for the first time in her career.

And when Stanford lost by 20 points, Kokenis' confidence took a hit. Though she played well in the next game at Tennessee - an overtime loss for the Cardinal - she moved back to a reserve role.

Early in the Pac-10 season, Kokenis hit her head on a camera that was being manned under the basket following a lay-up and sustained a concussion that would cost her three games. She used her time on the bench to watch and learn.

Kokenis calls the concussion "a little bit of a bummer."

But when she returned, the increased reps she received in practice were followed by increased playing time, which was followed by increased production.

"I was taking advantage of my opportunities on the floor and that was probably the biggest thing," Kokenis said.

Now VanDerveer regards Kokenis as a "sixth starter."

And that's fine for the freshman guard.

"I just want to be able to come in and help contribute to the team to help us be as successful as we can be," Kokenis said.

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