- Michelle Smith, Contributor, espnW.com
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STANFORD, Calif. -- Stanford celebrated Tara VanDerveer's 900th career victory Saturday at Maples Pavilion. And coach bought the pizza.
She picked up the tab for everyone. Her players, her staff, even the arena workers who would be staying for the night to work the doubleheader with the men's basketball team.
It was an overdue occasion to honor of the Hall of Famer, who became the fifth women's coach to win 900 games with a victory before Thanksgiving in Mexico. And it was the appropriate ending to a satisfying day, the No. 6-ranked Cardinal, coming off a 16-day break for final exams, having little trouble with No. 23 Gonzaga in a 73-45 win.
VanDerveer's team has slowly been giving her the gift she wants most.
The Cardinal (8-1) are as healthy as they have been all season, with juniors Taylor Greenfield and Bonnie Samuelson and senior Sara James all largely healed and available to play after missing much of the first month.
And maybe, finally, swear-on-your-sneakers this time, the Cardinal might be finding the balance they know they require to feed their championship aspirations.
Seven players played at least 18 minutes against Gonzaga (8-2); three of them, Chiney Ogwumike (19 points), Kailee Johnson (11) and Amber Orrange (10) finished in double figures. The Cardinal got 31 points off the bench, and six players pulled down at least four rebounds. Overall, it was a good sign of progress against a ranked Gonzaga team that had beaten both Ohio State and Wisconsin on the road earlier in the week.
"We had a lot of different people contributing," VanDerveer said. "We had some great energy coming off the bench. … This is the healthiest we've been and we want it to stay that way."
The freshman trio of Johnson, Erica McCall and Lili Thompson looks set to play larger and larger roles. Johnson has come into the post rotation and has proved to be a capable rebounder and, with two 3-pointers on Saturday, that she can stretch a defense. Thompson has started seven games at guard, and though foul trouble limited her Saturday, she provides quickness on the perimeter. And McCall is undeniably talented, but raw on the offensive end, playing 19 minutes and finishing with five points and seven rebounds.
"I'm thankful for the older players making me feel more comfortable," Johnson said.
As far as the freshmen, Ogwumike said they shouldn't be feeling any added pressure to take the load off of her. She missed a double-double (seven rebounds) for the third time this season, and her team still won by 28.
"We just want them to do the best they can do," Ogwumike said. "One thing we protect in our locker room is that no matter what class you are in, we are all equal, we are all trying to contribute.
"They learn a lot of things. … I had a nice mentor in [elder sister] Nneka, who was always on me, and we try to do the same for them. Our little buddy system really helps."
Never one to miss the opportunity to use a quirky metaphor, VanDerveer pulled out a new one Saturday afternoon.
"I told them we are like an orchestra," VanDerveer said. "Chiney is the concert master and Amber is on the drums, keeping a beat for us. But everyone is going to have a solo different nights."
With more options at more positions than she has had all season -- and perhaps in the last two or three years -- VanDerveer is going to get a chance to see how her players compete for playing time, how they keep each other accountable, and which combinations will work best.
"We aren't going to play 15 people," VanDerveer said. "We don't play what I call 'deli basketball,' where we run people in and out. We will have our rotation of eight to nine people stabilized by February."
But for December, this was another step in the right direction, the kind of all-hands-on-deck effort that the Cardinal want to build upon before next Saturday's visit from Tennessee.
VanDerveer knew Saturday's postgame party was coming, a couple of speeches, a personalized jersey, a standing ovation. But there was a surprise left.
VanDerveer said she came home Friday night after a long day at the office and a late-evening practice. She walked in the door to see "a couple of friends who would not normally be at my house," the coach said.
And then in walked her mother, Rita, who flew in from Colorado for the celebration and didn't tell her daughter.
"She didn't know anything about it," Rita VanDerveer said proudly.
All in all, a very good day for the Cardinal. Pizza for everyone.