Stanford back on the NCAA Tournament stage at home after last year's heartbreaking second-round exit

Updated Mar. 21, 2024 6:34 p.m. ET

STANFORD, Calif. (AP) — Last spring, after a heartbreaking, stunning, early exit from the women's NCAA Tournament at home, Tara VanDerveer gathered her coaches and players together for a series of debrief sessions to both regroup and reassess so Stanford could make sure this season is a special one.

The Hall of Fame coach wanted to establish a new, solid foundation to forge ahead when everybody needed a fresh focus from the forgettable finish. Three players had departed in the transfer portal, too.

VanDerveer held calls with each woman to get to know her even better, she brought in a leadership specialist, changed things up ever so slightly.

“Right from that spot, people were all in,” VanDerveer said. “We did a lot of different things, just maybe little things that added up. We did small group exercises, we worked with two other people, just to establish a great foundation of trust and respect and optimism and to move away from kind of the disappointment. And it was fabulous.”


The Cardinal were the top seed when they lost to eighth-seeded Ole Miss on their home floor — a defeat that still stings but also has served as motivation for months now. A year later, they are back on the big March stage for another shot in front of the home fans.

"The last time I was sitting up here was not a fun time," VanDerveer said from the press conference podium. “It was very disappointing to not get out of Maples. We have learned from that.”

A mantra was born: “Best year ever.”

Stanford (28-5) is coming off a 74-61 defeat in the Pac-12 Tournament title game to USC as it prepares to host 15th-seeded Norfolk State (27-5) on Friday night. The team from Virginia is led by junior point guard Diamond Johnson, who transferred from North Carolina State to join longtime coach Larry Vickers' program that she has now helped to a second straight NCAA appearance.

Johnson is averaging 20.3 points and will present a challenge for Stanford’s perimeter defense that has at times struggled stopping the 3 — like in the Pac-12 Tournament.

Cardinal stars Cameron Brink and Hannah Jump will be determined to leave their lasting mark at Maples Pavilion, where No. 7 Iowa State (20-11) takes on 10th-seeded Maryland (19-13) in Friday’s first game. The Cyclones are outscoring opponents 74.6 to 68.0.

VanDerveer regularly reminds her players, “Do our best and forgive the rest, come out and give it our all.” She earlier this year became the winningest coach in college basketball history — in the men’s or women’s games.

“I think the biggest thing that we learned and really tried to apply this year is play with joy and have fun,” junior forward Brooke Demetre said.

The Iowa State-Maryland matchup will certainly have plenty of warm feelings as well.

Cyclones coach Bill Fennelly brought now-Terrapins coach Brenda Frese onto his staff when he landed in Ames in 1995. She spent 1995-99 as an assistant for Fennelly, who was quick to text her when the first-round matchup was announced Sunday. Frese's sister, Stacy, also played for Fennelly at Iowa State from 1997-2000.

The two coaches and friends are too busy scouting for each other to get too nostalgic just yet.

“I'm grateful. This is an incredible experience and opportunity to be going against your mentor, someone who's been really impactful in my life,” said Frese, Maryland's 22nd-year coach. “I would not be here today had it not been for Bill asking me to come to Iowa State and be a part of that rebuild at the time. So pretty special to have this matchup.”

The Terrapins, making a 14th straight NCAA Tournament, took down top-seeded Ohio State 82-61 in the Big Ten Tournament before losing to Nebraska. The upset of the Buckeyes showed the Maryland women they can play with anybody.

“Our conference has prepared us to be in this moment,” said graduate student guard Jakia Brown-Turner, who was just 3 for 15 and missed all five of her 3-point tries against Nebraska. “Our wins and losses, we’ve learned a lot.”

Fennelly is thrilled for Frese and her decades of success.

“Brenda is part of my family. Obviously everyone knows she was on our staff when we first started at Iowa State. Her sister Stacy is one of the best players to ever play for us,” he said. “Brenda is going to be in the Basketball Hall of Fame. What she’s done at Maryland is incredible. The unique combination of absolute hardworking grinder with a passion that goes with it. I’m so proud of her and what she’s done. Our program is one that I think is pretty good and has been good, but we’re not where we are today without Brenda Frese, and that’s a fact.”


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