While Connecticut’s historic run deservedly will grab the spotlight at the women’s Final Four this weekend, Stanford earned its trip to Dallas with far less attention.
The Cardinal have won with defense, timely three-point shooting and contributions from many. Stanford has rallied from three halftime deficits during the NCAA Tournament to earn a spot in Dallas.
“This is a blue-collar team in the proud tradition of [former Stanford football coach] Jim Harbaugh,” Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said during a conference call Tuesday. “This is a put on your boots, put on your hardhat, bring your lunch bucket. This is that kind of team. I have never been any prouder of a team than I am proud of this team, and happy for this team.”
The Cardinal got to Dallas the hard way.
Stanford, seeded second in the Lexington Regional, could not host any NCAA Tournament games because of a scheduling conflict at its home court, Maples Pavilion in Palo Alto, California. So the Cardinal hit the road, starting in Kansas for the first two rounds and moving on to Kentucky for the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight.
Stanford trailed No. 15 seed New Mexico State by seven points at halftime in the first round, but rallied for a 72-64 win. After a more comfortable 21-point win over Kansas State on the Wildcats’ home court in the second round, the Cardinal trailed No. 3 seed Texas by seven points at halftime in the Sweet 16, but rallied again for a 77-66 win.
Stanford needed another rally in Sunday’s regional final, trailing top-seeded Notre Dame by as many as 16 points before a thrilling 76-75 win earned a spot in the Final Four.
Stanford did not win the Pac-12 regular-season title, despite a 15-3 record in arguably the nation’s toughest conference. The Cardinal had to grind out a 48-43 win over top seed Oregon State in the Pac-12 Tournament title game, which earned the conference’s automatic NCAA bid.
Stanford (32-5), which will play South Carolina in Friday night’s first national semifinal, is also the only team in Dallas without a player on the Associated Press All-America first, second or third teams. Senior forward Erica McCall and senior guard Karlie Samuelson were both honorable mention selections.
“This is not a star-studded team,” VanDerveer said. “We have players that are really good at certain things, and they’ve got to do those things. But they understand their role, and they embrace their role. The unselfishness, just the team cohesiveness is something that you can’t teach and you can’t coach. It kind of has happened.”
Against New Mexico State, Stanford needed 19 points off the bench from sophomore forward Alanna Smith and five three-pointers from Samuelson. McCall had 23 points and 12 rebounds and Samuelson hit four three-pointers in the win over Texas. It took a Smith layup with 23 seconds left and a last-second block by McCall to preserve the win over Notre Dame. Stanford also got 27 points, including five three-pointers, from junior guard Brittany McPhee and another five threes from Samuelson.
VanDerveer, who won her 1,000th career game earlier this season, is taking her 12th Stanford team to the Final Four. Two more wins would give her a third national title, perhaps her most unexpected.
After all, Connecticut, winners of 111 straight games, could be waiting in Sunday night’s national title game. Remember, it was Stanford which last beat Connecticut, an 88-86 overtime win in Maples Pavilion in November 2014.
“This team is extremely close,” VanDerveer said. “They play hard, with each other. They’re extremely unselfish. They’re hard-working. They’re in the gym early. They don’t care who gets the credit. They’re very excited for each other. They want to continue playing with each other.
“As the season went on, we just got better and better and/or confident. Different people are stepping up for us. That’s why we’re in the situation we’re in.”