By Mark Soltau
Sara James grew up with two older brothers, and they didn't always see eye-to-eye. Especially when it came to playing basketball.
"She is the most competitive of the three," said her father, Mike. "If she didn't win, a fight would ensue."
Born in Sacramento, James attended Oak Ridge High School in El Dorado Hills. A three-year captain of her team, the multi-talented guard led it to a CIF State title in 2010 and was selected to three All-America teams.
James honed her shooting touch at home, where her house sat atop a hill. "We had a basketball hoop in my front yard," she said. "Every time you missed, the ball rolled down the hill. We just learned not to miss."
James was recruited by almost every school on the West Coast. Wanting to play close to home, the combination of academics and athletes at Stanford were simply too good to pass up.
"I knew I wasn't going to be playing basketball the rest of my life," said James, a human biology major who is leaning toward nursing school. "I wanted to pick a school that would serve me for the rest of my life."
James played sparingly for the Cardinal her first two seasons, a big change from high school, when she was on the floor almost every minute. But James never complained, worked hard in practice, and kept herself mentally engaged until her chance came.
"I think you learn a lot about yourself," she said. "Either you give up or learn to help the team in other ways. I tried to do that as hard as I could and hopefully it made a difference when I was on the court, too. It's a lot more fun playing." Even though she sat much of the time, Mike and his wife Kelly attended every game to provide moral support.
"I was really worried she would get discouraged and stop working hard," he said. "In high school, she was always the last person to leave the gym. But she never did. I'm just so proud of her. She never let it get her down."
Looking to bolster her team's outside shooting, Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer inserted James at off guard against Utah on Jan. 6, and she responded by hitting three treys and scored 18 points in 31 minutes. James has been a fixture in the starting lineup ever since. Playing about 15 minutes a game, she averages 5.3 points and 1.8 rebounds. But that doesn't tell the whole story.
The scrappy and versatile James has buried 31 three-pointers -- third-most on the team -- dished out 28 assists and has 11 steals heading into Sunday's first-round NCAA Tournament game against Tulsa at 2:20 p.m. at Maples Pavilion. Don't be surprised to see her log minutes at small forward, where despite her 5-foot-10 frame, she's effective crashing the boards.
"They're kind of the same, just depending what plays we're running and what offense we're running," she said of her dual role. "I definitely feel more comfortable now. It took me a while to adjust mentally that I didn't have my same seat on the bench that 40 minutes."
More often than not, James has been assigned to guard the opposing team's best offensive player.
"Lately, it's been all about focus," James said. "I've been given tough defensive roles. I've just been studying people and working really hard before games, so when the whistle blows, I don't really have to think."
Mike coached her in youth games and said her biggest attribute is her will to win. "She's relentless," he said. "She just hates to lose. She'll do whatever it takes. She's always been a great scorer and rebounder for her size. She will work harder than anyone and never quit."
VanDerveer is counting on it. Keeping defenses honest could be a key as Stanford (31-2) pushes for its sixth straight appearance in the Final Four and a third national championship.
"I just would never have ever believed basketball would have gotten me all these opportunities," said James. "It's taken me all over the world, you meet so many people, and play for the best coach in the world. In some ways, I don't feel like I deserve it. I'm really fortunate to be in the position I'm in."
And the Cardinal is lucky to have her.