STANFORD, Calif. (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 other game at Maples Pavilion in the Oklahoma City regional features fifth-seeded Oklahoma (20-11) against 12th-seeded Quinnipiac (31-3).
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.
Here are some other things to watch in the games at Stanford:
EXPERIENCE VS. YOUTH: Oklahoma is a tournament regular with 16 straight appearances and three Final Four trips, while Quinnipiac lost in the first round in its only trip in 2013. But the Bobcats have the more experienced roster with five senior starters, while the Sooners are the youngest team in the tournament. Oklahoma has 12 players in their first or second year of eligibility with the team. ”This is a really new experience for a lot of them,” center Kaylon Williams said. ”As veterans, we shared our experiences in the past and things we learned when we came to our first NCAA.”
TOURNAMENT FIRSTS: Quinnipiac wants to show that it is more than just Connecticut’s ”other team” in the shadow of perennial powerhouse UConn. Quinnipiac joined UConn and Notre Dame as the only 30-win teams, but the first NCAA Tournament win in school history would truly give the program validation. ”Since we’ve been here that’s all we’ve been trying to do, make history and leave our mark,” senior guard Jasmine Martin said. ”That would be a great way to go out with a win in the tournament and do something we’ve never done before.” Cal State Northridge is also looking for its first tournament win, having lost in the first round in 1999 and 2014.
SUPER SUBS: Quinnipiac coach Tricia Fabbri isn’t afraid to utilize her bench. Eight reserves average more than 5 minutes per game as the Bobcats employ an unusual strategy called the ”The Gold Rush” that involves subbing five players at a time like a hockey line change. The Sooners also are deep with 10 players averaging double-digit minutes.
GREAT GUARDS: 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.”
HOME COOKING: 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. They have a 10-game home winning streak in the tournament. Matadors coach Jason Foster has experience at Maples, as a player on the UCLA team in 2001 that beat the top-ranked Cardinal and an assistant for the UC Riverside women’s team in 2010 that lost to Stanford. ”I have some fond memories of Maples as a player,” he said. ”As a coach, we came in here as a 16 seed when I was an assistant at Riverside. That wasn’t as fond.”