Palo Alto Weekly

Sports - April 4, 2014

Net result is a trip to the Final Four

Stanford women get another shot at undefeated Connecticut in the national semifinals

by Rick Eymer

Stanford has been here before: a berth on NCAA women's basketball's biggest stage against a team that seemingly appears unbeatable.

The sixth-ranked Cardinal gets a second chance to make a good first impression this weekend in Nashville, Tenn., getting the honor of sharing the same court with top-ranked and defending national champion Connecticut.

Stanford earned the right to play the Huskies by beating North Carolina, 74-65, in the Stanford Regional final on Tuesday in Maples Pavilion.

The Cardinal (33-3) knows all about Connecticut (38-0), having played the Huskies every season for a number of years.

"Four All-Americans," Stanford Tara VanDerveer said Wednesday. "They are big and they are not a one-trick pony team. (Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis) doesn't just shoot 3's. She puts the ball on the floor and she goes for offensive rebounds. (Stefanie Dolson) does not just post up. That's what you find with great players; they can do it all."

The game is scheduled for Sunday at 6 p.m. (ESPN), with the winner advancing to the championship game. The Huskies beat the Cardinal, 76-57, in the second game of the season in Storrs, Conn.

"Our team knows their team pretty well," VanDerveer added. "I'm sure they know us too."

Notre Dame (36-0) and Maryland (28-6) play in the other national semifinal at 3:30 p.m.

This will be the sixth meeting between Stanford and the Huskies in NCAA tournament play, the fourth time in the national semifinal, and the first since the 2010 national championship game, in which Connecticut won, 53-47.

Stanford beat the Huskies twice in their previous five meetings, the last time in the 2008 national semifinals.

The Cardinal also ended UConn's historic 90-game win streak in 2010 in a nonleague game.

Thanks to players such as fifth-year senior Mikaela Ruef, who had a career-high 17 points to go with nine rebounds against the Tar Heels, junior point guard Amber Orrange, who kept the Cardinal alive with 12 of her 14 points scored in the first half, junior Bonnie Samuelson, who added 13 points, hitting clutch 3-pointers and free throws, and freshman Lili Thompson, who scored 10 points and was Stanford's defensive MVP in the regional, Stanford is no one-trick pony either.

Cardinal senior Chiney Ogwumike may be the best player in the country, but she still needed help to lead Stanford past North Carolina.

The reason Ruef was named the regional's Most Outstanding Player was because of her ability to change the course of the game with a trio of 3-pointers and forcing the Tar Heels to change their game plan.

"In the NCAA tournament we had five people average double figures," VanDerveer said. "That's not what happened in the regular season. It was a great example of team basketball. Yes, we have a star, an All-American but it was great for Mikaela to be named the Outstanding Player. What a relief for Chiney to know she can trust her teammates and doesn't need to do it all."

In addition to all her other attributes, Ogwumike also helped the Cardinal break North Carolina's press with her ball-handling skills. That should not go unrecognized as Stanford prepares for Connecticut, which is fully capable of applying the pressure on defense.

"I had this weird premonition after we beat Penn State and everybody said it was Mikaela's best game ever," Ogwumike said. "I said I thought her best was yet to happen and then it did happen."

(VanDerveer quickly added she still hopes Ruef has yet to play her best game. "It was a great game in Maples," she said).

Orrange may not have played her best either, according to VanDerveer.

"When we lost in the Pac-12 tournament, that lit a fire under everybody," she said. "Something got to Amber too. She's played excellently through the tournament. She's energetic and the better the competition, it seems the better Amber plays."

A sentiment echoed by both Ogwumike and Ruef.

"Sometimes when things go wrong Amber comes through for us," Ogwumike said. "She knows when she needs to be aggressive. Sometimes she leads by her actions."

Added Ruef: "She can decisive. During a free throw, I went up to her and asked to run something. She said no, I want to run the triangle. She can take control."

After a season-long search to find the right starting small forward, VanDerveer has settled on senior Sara James.

"We've won every game Sara has started," VanDerveer said. "She's easy to start, too. She cares about the team and she wants to win. Sara hustles and is being physical. I also like what Bonnie can bring off the bench."

Samuelson leads all players with 14 3-pointers in the NCAA tournament. When she's on, it extends defenses and breaks down zones.

"Everybody buys in. They all know their roles," VanDerveer said. "Everybody understands they are part of the production. Some are on stage; some are behind the scenes doing lights or the curtain. Everybody is a part of making it a success. This team gets what it is about playing on this stage."

The scene after the game was nearly as chaotic as the game itself. Chiney Ogwumike ran over to hug her older sister Nnemkadi, a Stanford grad who helped lead the Cardinal to its previous Final Four trip.

Wearing their championship T-shirts, the Stanford women's basketball team ran a victory lap around the court to thank their fans, all 6,145 of them.

In the middle of it all stood Ruef, who a year ago was resigned to having played her final game at Stanford. She's celebrating her finest year as a player instead, and it's not over.

"When I saw the schedule at the beginning of the year, and saw that one of the regions was at Stanford I was determined to play here, win here, and go to the Final Four," Ruef said. "To be able to have my grandparents here, who were the reason I began playing basketball in the first place, and to play in front of them while they cheered for me, is the most amazing feeling ever. I'm so happy that happy isn't good enough to express it."

Stanford is headed to Nashville for its sixth trip to the NCAA Final Four in the past seven years thanks to something Ogwumike called heart.

"People were making plays because of heart," Ogwumike said. "If there was any way at Maples, in front of our fans and my family, it's with heart."

Ogwumike scored 20 points and grabbed 10 rebounds and joined Ruef on the all-tournament team along with Orrange.

"We figured out things that were working and we worked hard together," VanDerveer

said. "By far, Mikaela had her best game in a Stanford uniform."

Ruef nailed a pair of 3-pointers early in the second half, helping bring Stanford out a deficit. Her inside pass to Ogwumike resulted in the Cardinal's first lead, at 43-42, since it was 2-0.

"I used to be a three-point shooter back in the day," Ruef said, her voice harsh from screaming and shouting all night. "They were literally standing in the paint so I figured I had to shoot."

Stanford scored 12 unanswered points to eventually pull ahead, 48-42, with 13:04 remaining to play on Samuelson's third 3-pointer.

North Carolina clawed back to take a short-lived lead in the final four minutes, but there was Ruef, Ogwumike, or one of the other many contributors, ready to keep Stanford focused on the big prize.

"It was a very difficult game in terms of physicality," Ogwumike said. "I've seen a lot of defenses and this was an NCAA defense. It was throwback basketball with banging in the paint. I tried to relax, play basketball and push through."

All the way to Nashville.

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