SACRAMENTO, Calif. - Jayne Appel slipped the celebratory net from her own neck and handed it over to Jeanette Pohlen, where it truly belonged. There was no doubt about that.
This is Appel's team. Yet this was Pohlen's night. She's the biggest reason Appel is headed back to the Final Four for one last shot at a national championship.
Pohlen drove the length of the court for the game-winning lay-in as the final buzzer sounded, giving top-seeded Stanford a 55-53 victory over third-seeded Xavier in the Sacramento Regional final Monday night for a third straight trip to the Final Four.
Pohlen pulled out the biggest play yet to save a spectacular season after Stanford won its first three tournament games by a combined 98 points.
"I'm still in shock right now," she said. "It was kind of weird. Everybody was behind me . . . It was kind of crazy, just weaving in and out. The assistant coaches kept telling me four seconds is a long time. It did feel like a long time."
Xavier's Dee Dee Jernigan missed two wide-open lay-ins in the closing 12 seconds that likely would have sent the Musketeers to San Antonio for their first Final Four.
"I was too anxious," Jernigan said. "It was like a kid in a candy store. I was too open and didn't think it was coming out."
Stanford's Kayla Pedersen called it "divine intervention" after Jernigan failed to convert.
Said Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer, "We were very lucky. She missed two point-blank layups. But there's a lot of pressure with the clock going down. I thought people were very tentative and I did not see from our team what I've seen all year."
Pedersen inbounded the ball underneath the Xavier basket to Pohlen with 4.4 seconds left, and Pohlen weaved her way all the way to the hoop for the winning shot, with the ball leaving her hand just before the backboard lit up. The play was briefly reviewed, then Stanford erupted in celebration once the officials ruled the basket good.
Xavier's Special Jennings collapsed to the floor, hands on her head, after the basket. Teammate April Phillips grabbed her head in disbelief at midcourt while Stanford's players jumped for joy.
A few minutes later, fresh victory T-shirts and hats in hand, fifth-year senior Rosalyn Gold-Onwude held Pohlen in a long embrace while their teammates began cutting down the nets. After that, the players grabbed pompons from their cheerleaders and pumped them in the air, Appel dancing a jig with a net around her neck.
An hour after the win, Appel waited anxiously for the highlight reel of the day's best plays on the locker-room TV.
"Jeanette has to be No. 1," Appel hollered. "Come on, baby!" Several moments later, there it was.
The players went wild. JJ Hones filmed it on her phone. Pohlen put her hands on her head, still stunned by what she did. "Oh my God! That's my play!" she shouted.
"Jeanette, you made SportsCenter!" exclaimed assistant coach Kate Paye.
"Wow," Appel added.
All the while, Gold-Onwude cradled the trophy across the room.
VanDerveer and top assistant Amy Tucker had discussed this exact late-game scenario earlier in the day - and VanDerveer also talked it over with reserve guard Lindy La Rocque after their pregame meal.
Pohlen mentioned calling a timeout once the ball was across midcourt, but VanDerveer said, "No, take it to the basket."
"This was big for her, the biggest shot of her career at Stanford," VanDerveer said of Pohlen. "Obviously, her speed is her strength. Amy diagrammed the play and it was just getting Jeanette on the move."
Xavier hung with Stanford for all 40 minutes - and the Cardinal needed every bit of grit it had to move on for at least one more.
"I don't think we can play any harder. It was a pleasure to be a part of that game," Xavier coach Kevin McGuff said.
Pedersen had 18 points and 10 rebounds and Nnemkadi Ogwumike had 16 points and 14 rebounds for the Cardinal (35-1), which survived an intense defensive matchup from the physical Musketeers to win their 26th straight game in a foul-filled affair at Arco Arena.
Stanford is one win away from that highly anticipated rematch with Connecticut. The undefeated defending champion Huskies handed the Cardinal its lone loss on Dec. 23. Stanford is the last team to beat UConn, in the 2008 NCAA semifinals in Tampa, but lost to the Huskies in last year's semis.
Amber Harris scored 20 points and April Phillips added 11 points, six rebounds and four assists for Xavier (30-4), which saw its 21-game winning streak end.
Stanford had to win it with Appel on the bench as she fouled out with 3:58 left. Xavier's 6-6 Ta'Shia Phillips sat down with her fifth foul at the 5:32 mark.
"I'm so proud of my teammates," Appel said.
Later, Pohlen returned that special net to Appel.