(AP) – For most of the last decade, Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer has had the luxury of entering the NCAA Tournament with a team led by one of the top women’s players in the game.
From Candice Wiggins to the Ogwumike sisters, stars have helped Stanford make it to the Final Four six times in the past seven years.
This Cardinal squad is a little bit different, relying on balance more than star power to make it to the tournament for the 28th consecutive year.
Fourth-seeded Stanford (24-9) will open play Saturday at home against 13th-seeded Cal State Northridge (23-9).
”We’ve had so many people have big games for us and we know any night it could be anybody who blows up,” guard Lili Thompson said. ”That makes it harder for other people to guard and plan for than just that one All-American center to throw bodies at.”
The season was far from a breeze for the Cardinal, who lost five conference games to have a streak of 14 straight regular-season Pac-12 titles snapped but recovered to win the conference tournament.
After relying heavily on inside post play in recent years, VanDerveer switched gears this season to focus the offense around the talented backcourt of Thompson and Amber Orrange.
Thompson and Orrange lead the Cardinal in scoring but six other players led Stanford in single games as the team’s offense is more spread out.
”We all took it as a challenge that it was going to be different and a tough road but we could get to the outcome we wanted if we worked hard,” senior forward Bonnie Samuelson said.
Stanford and Cal State Northridge both rely heavily on their backcourts, with the Matadors’ trio of Ashlee Guay, Janae Sharpe and Cinnamon Lister providing a tough challenge for Thompson, Orrange and Brittany McPhee.
Asked which guard worried her most, VanDerveer said: ”The one with the ball. They’re all really good.”
The Matadors enter on a nine-game win streak after winning the Big West conference championship behind Guay’s 22 points and Sharpe’s 20 in the title game.
"This is the best team in school history. Period. And that’s no disrespect to anybody else,” coach Jason Flowers said. ”We respect the tradition of our program and we embrace it, but we’ve had more wins in our program in the last couple of years than ever before.
"This group of young women have worked their tails off. They’ve sacrificed, they’ve cried, they’ve bled, but they are standing here as the best team to ever play at Cal State Northridge.”
Maples Pavilion has hosted 59 women’s tournament games heading into this year, second most to the 63 at Tennessee’s Thompson-Boling Arena. The Cardinal have played 34 of those games, losing just four, and have a 10-game home winning streak in the tournament.