The scene after the game was nearly as chaotic as the game itself. Chiney Ogwumike ran over to hug her older sister Nnemkadi, a Stanford grad who helped lead the Cardinal to its previous Final Four trip.
In the middle of it all stood Stanford's fifth-year senior Mikaela Ruef, who a year ago was resigned to having played her final game at Stanford. She's celebrating her finest year as a player instead, and it's not over.
"When I saw the schedule at the beginning of the year, and saw that one of the regions was at Stanford I was determined to play here, win here, and go to the Final Four," Ruef said. "To be able to have my grandparents here, who were the reason I began playing basketball in the first place, and to play in front of them while they cheered for me, is the most amazing feeling ever. I'm so happy that happy isn't good enough to express it."
No fooling, the Stanford women's basketball team is headed to Nashville for its sixth trip to the NCAA Final Four in the past seven years thanks to, what Ogwumike called, heart.
"People were making plays because of heart," Ogwumike said after the sixth-ranked Cardinal beat No. 12 North Carolina, 74-65, in the Stanford Regional final Tuesday night. "If there was any way at Maples, in front of our fans and my family, it's with heart."
Ruef scored a career-high 17 points, changing the course of the game by hitting a trio of 3-pointers, and earning Most Outstanding Player honors on the all-tournament team.
"She made two all year and she made three tonight," North Carolina associate coach Andrew Calder said. "That changed the game and led to single coverage on Ogwumike and we couldn't handle her. Ruef was the X-factor. She was the difference in the game for their ability to score."
Ogwumike scored 20 points and grabbed 10 rebounds and joined Ruef on the all-tournament team along with junior guard Amber Orrange, who scored 12 of her 14 points in the first half and recorded a team-high four assists.
Cardinal junior Bonnie Samuleson, who has the most 3-pointers (14) in the NCAA tournament, added 13 points and freshman Lili Thompson had 10.
"We figured out things that were working and we worked hard together," Cardinal coach Tara VanDerveer said. "By far, Mikaela had her best game in a Stanford uniform."
Stanford (33-3) has another date with top-ranked Connecticut (38-0) on Sunday at 5:30 p.m. (ESPN) with a chance to advance to another championship game. The Huskies beat the Cardinal, 76-57, in the second game of the season in Storrs, Conn.
"We're a better team than the last time we played them," VanDerveer said. "Our team is excited to be playing them again."
Notre Dame (36-0) and Maryland (28-6) play in the other national semifinal at 3:30 p.m.
Ruef nailed a pair of 3-pointers early in the second half, helping bring Stanford out a deficit. Her inside pass to Ogwumike resulted in the Cardinal's first lead, at 43-42, since it was 2-0.
"I used to be a three-point shooter back in the day," Ruef said, her voice harsh from screaming and shouting all night. "They were literally standing in the paint so I figured I had to shoot."
Stanford scored 12 unanswered points to eventually pull ahead, 48-42, with 13:04 remaining to play on Samuelson's third 3-pointer.
North Carolina clawed back to take a short-lived lead in the final four minutes, but there was Ruef, Ogwumike, or one of the other many contributors, there to keep Stanford focused on the big prize.
Allisha Gray made her first six shots, three of them from long range, to help North Carolina open a 22-9 advantage. She finished with 19 points, but 15 came in the first half.
It was already clear midway through the first half that the Tar Heels had Ogwumike frustrated in the paint, with nowhere to roam and no way to get free.
"It was a very difficult game in terms of physicality," Ogwumike said. "I've seen a lot of defenses and this was an NCAA defense. It was throwback basketball with banging in the paint. I tried to relax, play basketball and push through."
Following a media timeout, it became obvious that Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer lit a fire under Orrange, who turned into an aggressor and took it at the Tar Heels.
The Cardinal chipped away at the North Carolina lead and was within 31-30 with 4:15 left in the first half.
Stanford missed its last six shots of the half and was lucky to enter halftime down, 36-30.
The second half, however, belonged to Stanford as it clamped down defensively -- North Carolina standout freshman Diamond DeShields missed 10 of 15 shots overall -- and earned a trip to Nashville.
NOTES: Stanford will play in the Final Four for the 12th time in program history . . . The Cardinal is now 30-4 in Maples Pavilion in NCAA Tournament action and 5-1 in regional play . . . Ogwumike's 10 rebounds gives her 167 all-time in the NCAA Tournament, passing ex-Cardinal Jayne Appel for 10th in career NCAA tourney history. Brittney Griner and Cheryl Miller are tied for eighth with 170 . . . Stanford is now 3-0 all-time against North Carolina in NCAA play.
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