Palo Alto Weekly

Sports - April 1, 2011

Hoping to net a national title

Stanford seniors may have their best shot at winning the crown in their fourth trip

by Keith Peters

It's tradition for the winning team to cut down the nets following a regional championship in the NCAA Tournament. However, it's not mandatory.

"Our 1990 team didn't cut down the regional net," explained Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer. "They wanted the Final Four net."

The Cardinal did get to snip the net in '90 after chopping down Auburn for its first-ever NCAA women's basketball title.

Now, says VanDerveer: "We want the Final Four net."

The Stanford players did a dry run on Monday to sharpen their scissor skills, cutting down the nets after eliminating Gonzaga, 83-60, in the Spokane Regional final.

The victory earned the nationally No. 2-ranked Cardinal (33-2) a date with No. 7 Texas A&M (31-5) in Sunday's NCAA Final Four semifinals in Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Ind. Tip off is 4 p.m. (ESPN).

In the other semifinal, defending champ Connecticut (36-1) will take on Notre Dame (30-7). The winners will meet Tuesday for the national title.

Stanford will be making its 10th appearance in the Final Four and its fourth straight trip, the first time a Cardinal senior class has made four straight trips. Texas A&M, meanwhile, will be making its first appearance.

Stanford lost last year's national championship game to Connecticut (53-47) and fell in the semifinals the two previous years to UConn (83-64) and Tennessee (64-48). Thus, the Cardinal senior class is bound and determined not to leave Indianapolis without an NCAA title on Tuesday night.

"It's incredible to make it to four Final Fours," said senior Kayla Pedersen. "But, we're not satisfied with that."

"It's been a great season," said fellow senior starter Jeanette Pohlen. "I don't think we're done yet. We won't be satisfied unless we win the national championship."

Stanford last won an NCAA title in 1992. Current assistant coaches Kate Paye and Bobbie Kelsey were both on that team. The current Cardinal players believe it's time for a third trophy for VanDerveer.

"That would be amazing," Pedersen said. "It would be the cherry on top of the season. She (VanDerveer) definitely deserves it."

VanDerveer has had better teams, calling her 1997 squad that went 34-2 and lost in the NCAA semifinals, her best ever — perhaps based on talent and potential. This current squad, however, is finishing off a four-year run unlike any before it.

Along with the seniors making four straight trips to the Final Four, their four-year record of 137-13 is unsurpassed. The current seniors also went 63-0 at home during their careers. A big part of that can be traced to senior starters Kayla Pedersen and Jeanette Pohlen.

It has been quite a journey for the two, who have been the heart and soul of this season's team that features one of the strongest supporting casts ever with junior Nnemkadi Ogwumike and freshman Chiney Ogwumike, both former Gatorade National Players of the Year.

Pohlen started her career as a role player and finished her freshman year with no points or assists in that NCAA title game loss to Tennessee in Tampa Bay, Fla.

"It was a gorgeous place to have it," Pohlen recalled of her first Final Four site. ""It's all kind of a blur. Beating UConn (in the semifinals) that year was huge for us. I just remember saying I want to come back and do this again."

As a sophomore, Pohlen traveled to St. Louis, Mo., for the Final Four. She had four points and six assists in a semifinal loss to UConn.

"Last year, that was a lot of fun," she said of the trip to San Antonio, Texas. "The team we went with made it all the more special."

Pedersen also has her Final Four memories.

"The first year I remember beating UConn, that was incredible," Pedersen recalled. "Tennessee's pressure defense was just too much for us. We just wanted to give Candice (Wiggins) a good ride out."

As a sophomore in St. Louis: "It was unfortunate to lose in the semifinals. Last year we had a great team. We gave it our all; we left it all on the floor."

That brings us to Indianapolis and a fourth opportunity for the seniors. Coincidently, it's also the state where VanDerveer attended college (Indiana, 1975) and started three seasons at guard on the women's team. It was there she would sit and watch Bobby Knight coach the Indiana men, learning the tools that eventually lead to 826 career victories and nearly every honor possible.

VanDerveer acknowledged that it could be a nostalgic trip, especially after hearing that her former college coach might be attending the Final Four.

"It does have a special feel to it," VanDerveer said, "but it's not about me. It's about sharing this with this team. To share this with Kayla and Jeanette is really special."

VanDerveer recalled how both her starting seniors got their careers under way.

"Jeanette was a role player on that first team," VanDerveer said. "She just improved a lot and got in better shape."

Pohlen went from coming off the bench to being named Pac-10 Player of the Year this season along with earning first-team All-American honors from the Associated Press (the first Stanford player in the top five since Wiggins in '08) and being one of five finalists (along with Nnemkadi Ogwumike) for the Wooden Award, honoring the nation's top player.

Pedersen was another story.

"Kayla has never been a freshman. Kayla was a senior as a freshman," VanDerveer said. "She was a rock."

Pedersen has started 149 of the 150 games that Stanford has played during her four-year career. To put her value to the team into perspective, she missed the DePaul game this season after hitting her head against Fresno State. Stanford lost to DePaul, 91-71. Three days later against Tennessee, Pedersen still wasn't at full strength and the Cardinal lost again, 82-72.

Since then, Stanford has won 27 straight to tie the school record. DePaul and Tennessee both were eliminated from the NCAA Tournment.

Pohlen had 17 points in Monday's win over Gonzaga, making five 3-pointers to break the school single-season record of 91 set by Krista Rappahan. Pohlen also ranks No. 2 all-time at Stanford with 265 treys.

Pedersen scored eight points and pulled down 12 rebounds against Gonzaga, leaving her seven boards shy of tying Jayne Appel's all-time school and Pac-10 rebound record of 1,263.

The Gonzaga game also marked the 149th game for both Pedersen and Pohlen, breaking the school mark of 148 held by Rosalyn Gold-Onwude. Additionally, Pedersen and Pohlen are 1-2 on the career minutes list with 4,722 and 4,316, respectively.

Only one thing seemingly remains to be achieved by the senior duo — winning a national title and cutting down the nets one final time.

Said freshman sensation Chiney Ogwumike, regarding her first Final Four: "I'm really excited to play with Jeanette and Kayla. I hope to make the seniors' year end right."

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