Top-seeded Stanford falls short at Final Four
Stanford is thrilled to be a Final Four regular again. Yet that hardly makes it any easier for the Cardinal players or their coach to keep coming home without a trophy.
Tara VanDerveer's team is 0-for-4 in chances at the championship in four straight trips to women's basketball's biggest stage, still left looking for the school's first national title since 1992.
This time, the top-seeded Cardinal are coming back to campus a couple of days earlier than expected after falling 63-62 to Texas A&M in the national semifinals Sunday night in Indianapolis. Stanford again heads into the offseason disappointed and left to wonder why things didn't work out with another deep and talented team.
There were so many other milestones to cherish this season - and now there's the one that didn't happen.
VanDerveer, named Monday to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, became the fifth Division I coach to join the 800 wins club on Dec. 22. Eight days later, Stanford stunned then-No. 1 Connecticut to snap the two-time defending champion Huskies' record 90-game winning streak.
Seniors Kayla Pedersen and Jeanette Pohlen capped a perfect run at Maples Pavilion for their four-year careers with a second-round NCAA victory against St. John's, extending the program's school-record winning streak to 63 games. They were part of the first class at Stanford to ever go unbeaten at home.
Stanford (33-3) took a 27-game winning streak into the game with the second-seeded Aggies.
''It's hard. I mean, it's an awful feeling,'' Pedersen said. ''But ... the hardest part isn't losing the game, it's just leaving these girls. And I just thank God for every opportunity I've had with these girls over the last weekend, four years, and it's been wonderful. So, I mean, I'm happy to be with them right now and I'm happy to lose with this team, if we did have to lose.''
A year ago, it was Pedersen who said she didn't want to have to say she was part of four consecutive Final Four teams that never took the next step. Stanford led UConn by eight points at halftime of the 2010 NCAA title game only to lose 53-47. In 2008, the Cardinal ended a 10-year Final Four drought and rode Candice Wiggins to the title game before falling to Tennessee.
VanDerveer, who shared AP Coach of the Year honors this season with UConn's Geno Auriemma and Katie Meier of Miami, said losing the title last year fueled her to be a better coach, to work even harder.
The Hall of Fame award Monday was thrilling but came on a ''tough'' morning. VanDerveer spent countless hours preparing for Texas A&M after it shocked top-seeded Baylor in the regional finals. The Aggies' aggressive, in-your-face pressure defense made it tough for Stanford to find its usual offensive rhythm.
The Cardinal committed an uncharacteristic 22 turnovers, seven of those by point guard and Pac-10 Player of the Year Pohlen.
''We watched a lot of video. And we saw that their offense was their defense. They get a lot of steals. They get a lot of turnovers. And they produce by turning the ball over,'' said junior forward Nnemkadi Ogwumike, who provided the highlight with 31 points on 10-for-15 shooting to go with seven rebounds. ''We tried our best to really kind of find our way around it. It became a little bit more disruptive at the end, and I definitely give them kudos for that defense. It was really hard to get open. And we really tried our best.''
Now, it will be up to Ogwumike and star younger sister, Chiney - the Pac-10 Freshman of the Year - to lead Stanford into another season with high expectations of returning to the Final Four and winning it all.
Yet VanDerveer knows how hard this latest near-miss will be for her seniors and everybody else to deal with in the coming days.
''I'm really proud of our team, with what we've gone through and all the growth this team has had,'' VanDerveer said. ''It's not about me. It's about them. I can have another chance, but I feel bad for Kayla and Jeanette. They wanted this. They worked hard. They dedicated themselves and committed themselves to this team and this program. And I can't say enough positive things about them and what they've brought to Stanford and how proud I am of them.''