Azzi returns to Stanford with her own rebuilt program


Stanford grad Jennifer Azzi went through the process of building a program as a player and now she's doing it again as a coach. It's just as special the second time.

Azzi returns to Maples Pavilion as coach of the USF women's basketball team, which improbably qualified for the NCAA tournament by winning the West Coast Conference tournament as the No. 6 seed.

Jennifer Azzi during a 2008 visit to Stanford. Photo by Kyle Terada/Stanford Athletics
The 13th-seeded Dons (21-11) meet tournament host Stanford (24-7), and Azzi's former coach Tara VanDerveer, on Saturday at 6 p.m. in a first-round contest. No. 5 Miami (24-8) and No. 12 South Dakota State (26-6) play at 3:30 p.m.

Saturday's winners advance into Monday's second round for a trip to Lexington (Ky.) and the Sweet 16, where it appears likely that the region's No. 1 seed Notre Dame will be waiting.

"I don't even know if I know how to describe coming back to Stanford," Azzi said Friday. "I've shared often with my team, and this was before we even knew we were coming to Stanford, what it was like as a player building a program. The only way I can describe it is that it is a little bit surreal being at Stanford. I don't want that to overshadow, though, that USF has made it to the NCAA Tournament, which is historically an incredible milestone in and of itself."

USF seniors Zhane Dikes and Taylor Proctor are playing the role of Azzi in this version of building a program. They led the Dons through a series of arduous struggles against each of the WCC's top three seeds to come out on top.

Azzi led Stanford to its first NCAA national title in 1990, a mere five years after VanDerveer took over. Azzi is in her sixth year at USF.

"The first conversation I had with her, I wasn't familiar with Jennifer Azzi," Proctor said. "But when I did my research on her and my coach from high school was talking about her, I couldn't believe that I was talking to a Hall of Famer. It was an honor for me, and just being able to play for her has been probably the best four years of my life."

VanDerveer understands how Azzi operates, which is full speed ahead. Azzi always had a coaching mentality even during her playing days.

"Jennifer put Stanford women's basketball on the map," VanDerveer said. "She was to women's basketball in the Bay Area what Steph Curry is to men's professional basketball. Her style, her passion, her work ethic. She came up to me one time her freshman year after a loss -- we lost to BYU -- she had a triple-double, and she said to me, 'Tara, we need to be running more sprints.' What player says that?"

Stanford, in its 30th NCAA tournament, is seeking its 23rd trip to the Sweet 16. The fourth-seeded Cardinal knows it can't overlook the Dons.

"I think that our energy is going to have to be at an ultimate high these next couple of games," Stanford junior guard Briana Roberson said. "It is on us to start off with as much energy as we can but it is on the players coming in to maintain or even bring it up if need be. I think the amount of energy is going to be critical for these next couple of games especially."

An early exit from the Pac-12 tournament served as a wake-up call.

"We know that USF is a solid team," Cardinal post Kaylee Johnson said. "And we know most importantly that this is tournament time. The loss to Washington in the Pac-12 tournament was a newsflash. It was a hard realization that we only have one game left with these girls under this staff, and we're not going to get this opportunity again, so I think this is something we're all excited to take advantage of."

— Rick Eymer/Palo Alto Online Sports

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