Stanford's tough ending
sparks a new beginning
So, where does the Stanford women's basketball team go from here? After three straight appearances in the NCAA Final Four hotel, the penthouse is the last remaining floor not occupied by the Cardinal since 1992.
Thus, the options are clear — take the stairs or the elevator.
With 11 players set to return off this season's 36-2 team — it could be as many as 13 if JJ Hones and Michelle Harrison decide to give it one more go — Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer likely isn't planning on making a slow climb back to the top.
VanDerveer will take Tuesday night's 53-47 loss to undefeated Connecticut in the national championship game and make it a motivational tool for next season.
"We're very disappointed we didn't win a national championship and that we didn't win the game," VanDerveer said. "But, to be in three Final Fours, two national championship games in three years, you've got to knock on the door."
And Stanford has knocked on the door, four times in the national finals.
"We've won two out of four times," VanDerveer said. "So we need to work hard and get back. And, we need this (loss to UConn) to be motivating and inspiring for our team. And, we need it to be extremely painful. The fact that it is painful and we're not just saying we're happy to be here (at the Final Four) is a good thing for us at Stanford."
That pain of losing to UConn was still evident and on the faces of the Stanford players as they walked into Maples Pavilion on Wednesday for an impromptu welcome-home celebration upon their return to school from the Final Four in San Antonio, Texas.
A few hundred fans in attendance showed their appreciation, as did VanDerveer.
"I want to thank all of you who turned out today," VanDerveer said. "I know some of you took off work today for this. I just want to say that there are probably more people here today than my first two years here."
Stanford went 13-15 in VanDerveer's first season, in 1985-86, and then 14-14 the following season. What followed was the beginning of what has been a remarkable success story for the program. A 27-5 mark in 1987-88 followed by a 28-3 mark in '88-89 and, finally, that first NCAA championship in 1989-90 with that superlative 32-1 record.
A second NCAA title followed two years later, and then a long drought that Stanford fans had hoped would end Tuesday night against UConn.
It didn't happen, of course, despite the fact Stanford became the first team during the Huskies' 78-game winning streak to lose by less then 10 points.
That was little consolation for the players and coaches, who talked about Stanford's third straight appearance in the NCAA Final Four and how it wouldn't be the last — especially with a solid corps of players returning from the 36-2 team that set a school record for single-season victories. In fact, the Cardinal has compiled a record of 104-11 over the past three years — the best stretch in school history.
Senior guard Rosalyn Gold-Onwude, the team's defensive stopper and designated public speaker, put things into proper perspective when she said: "When we were on the bus today, we got a call from President Barack Obama . . . and all we do is shoot baskets."
Gold-Onwude put on a brave, smiling face as she spoke while her teammates either fought back some tears or wished, perhaps, they were somewhere else. Rehashing and reliving the good, bad and ugly of the previous night's performance was not easy and there were few smiles on the players' faces during the short ceremony that included the Stanford Band.
VanDerveer made a point of including the highlights of next season's schedule, which includes a home game with UConn in December. One would hazard a guess that the date already is circled in red on the players' calendars.
As she said the night before in the postgame press conference:
"We were in the game and then we just . . . we didn't sustain what we needed to do for 40 minutes . . . We have played competitively with them (UConn) for the most part I think every time. And now they'll be coming out to Stanford. And that will be a good thing for our team, I think.
"They've gone two straight seasons undefeated. I think they deserve a tremendous amount of credit. And let's take care — we have to — we can't talk about it. We have to beat them to close the gap."
Stanford appeared ready to close that gap by grabbing a 20-12 halftime lead on the Huskies in the finale. The title was ripe for the taking. Stanford took it to the Huskies and took the biggest lead of the season against them at one point.
The Cardinal's downfall, however, began even before Connecticut opened the second half with a 29-9 run.
Connecticut did not score for more than 11 minutes during one stretch in the first half, but Stanford managed just 10 points over that span and never threw the knockout punch. That gave Connecticut a chance to get up from the mat.
The Huskies recovered from their worst first half in school history to become the first women's team ever to complete back-to-back undefeated seasons.
"It's very disappointing and frustrating," VanDerveer said. "I'm more sad for Jayne (Appel). She's been a great player for us and to see her go out on this kind of a game is sad."
Appel was 0-for-12 from the field and grabbed seven rebounds playing on a painful ankle that required attention during the second half of the game after she re-sprained it.
"Jayne gave it everything she had," said junior Kayla Pedersen said. "I'm sure she's upset but she is the force of this team and we're not going to stop going to her. I'm proud of her fighting through the pain. She never let us know how bad it was because she didn't want us to worry about it."
Appel wasn't alone in her struggles. Gold-Onwude went scoreless and sophomore Nnemkadi Ogwumike was not the same player who produced 38 points and 16 rebounds in the semifinal win over Oklahoma. Only Pedersen, with 15 points and 17 rebounds, stood out.
"We were stagnant," Ogwumike said. "We played good defense but we weren't doing it on offense. We weren't concentrating enough on our shots. It was either over-focusing or under-focusing, one of the two and either way it caused us to miss shots we make every day."
"We wasted a lot of opportunities in both halves," VanDerveer said. "You can feel so close and at the same time so far away. We had a great year and I'm proud of what we accomplished. Our inability to score really hurt us. It was there for the taking."
And so another championship run comes to a close just short of the finish line. A new one seems to be beginning already.
"Neka and I were talking about next year already," Pedersen said. "We can hardly wait."