Stanford regroups for NCAAs after Pac-12 disappointment
STANFORD, Calif. — Laughter and good-natured screams echoed off the walls of Stanford's locker room Thursday morning with NCAA Tournament preparation in full swing.
You'd never know these were the same women who made an early exit from the Pac-12 Tournament a week ago, bounced by UCLA.
Shaken, Stanford needed a serious heart-to-heart to find that joy again. The players and the coaching staff sat together in a circle after dinner at the hotel in Las Vegas and talked about accountability and what would be needed from everybody to make another special March run.
Then, they came home to the Bay Area and met again, players-only this time.
“Obviously the Pac-12 Tournament didn't end the way we wanted it to but we've had a great week of practice and we're a completely different team than we were a week ago,” senior Hannah Jump said. “We're completely ready to bounce back and just have fun, play with a smile, and just play with joy.”
Top-seeded Stanford (28-5) will open its NCAA quest Friday with a matchup against 16th-seeded Sacred Heart (19-13), which beat Southern 57-47 in a First Four game Wednesday night for its first NCAA win in school history.
Despite the disappointment at the conference tournament, Hall of Fame Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer considers the rest that her players received as key benefit. She sensed they were spent during that full team meeting.
“What came through, the message from the team was that they’re close and they are committed to each other, and that’s where you want them to be, that they’re going to work hard, that they want to play, play hard,” VanDerveer said. "What I saw more than anything was just, we need a break. I saw this with our Olympic team, maybe people feeling some pressure. I’m just like, 'Let’s just take a break, get away from it, and just say, all right, now we’re coming back with the tournament.'"
In Friday night’s second game of the Seattle Region at Maples Pavilion, eighth-seeded Ole Miss (23-8) faces No. 9 seed Gonzaga (28-4). The two coaches are plenty familiar with each other: Lisa Fortier was a Zags assistant when fifth-year Ole Miss coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin served on the Portland staff.
"As soon as the matchup got announced, I shot her a text and I said, 'Just super proud of you and what you all have done,'" McPhee-McCuin said. “So I think that first and foremost, there is an incredible amount of respect that we have for Gonzaga and what they have accomplished.”
Gonzaga's Brynna Maxwell has the second-highest 3-point shooting percentage in the nation at 49.43%, while Ole Miss features one of the top perimeter defenses.
The Zags, runner-up to second-seeded Portland in the West Coast Conference Tournament, earned their sixth consecutive NCAA Tournament berth under Fortier and are a ninth seed for a second straight year. Gonzaga beat No. 8 Nebraska last March to reach the second round before losing to top-seeded Louisville on its home floor.
Ole Miss lost 80-51 to No. 1 South Carolina in the SEC Tournament, and has faced Pac-12 power Utah. The Rebels are led by Angel Baker’s averages of 15.1 points and 5.5 rebounds.
The team traveled from Oxford, Mississippi, to its coach’s homeland in The Bahamas, and this trip west marks the program’s third straight year in postseason play.
“We’re just getting started,” McPhee-McCuin said.
Sacred Heart (19-13), from Fairfield, Connecticut, celebrated Wednesday night, then was in the film room first thing Thursday, ready to keep proving people wrong after a 2-9 start to this season.
“Obviously this is the biggest team we've ever played against,” said Pioneers coach Jessica Mannetti, whose team must contend with Cameron Brink and her 111 blocks this season.
Still, Mannetti reminded her team that a No. 16 seed has pulled off an improbable victory in the first round before: Just so happens that was Harvard stunning Stanford right here 25 years ago.
“She said it was Stanford,” freshman Ny’Ceara Pryor said, “But why not Sacred Heart.”