- Michelle Smith, Contributor, espnW.com
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STANFORD, Calif. -- There was a song and dance coming from the Stanford locker room after the second-seeded Cardinal dispatched No. 3 seed Penn State 82-57 on Sunday afternoon.
"I didn't recognize any of the dance moves, but I know they were happy," Cardinal coach Tara VanDerveer said.
In North Carolina's locker room, there was some ice and a moment to sit down and rest after a 65-58 win over top-seeded South Carolina that was far more of a grind than the Cardinal's coast to the Elite Eight for the ninth time in the past 11 years.
"We had to battle hard, very hard," North Carolina associate head coach Andrew Calder said. "It was a physical game, the way we wanted to play it."
The Tar Heels became the second No. 4 seed of the day to send a top seed home early, jumping out to an early lead on South Carolina and then withstanding the Gamecocks' inevitable charge at the finish. It was a prize fight of a game for the Tar Heels (26-9), who fought through foul trouble and a pair of injuries to their best player to advance to the Elite Eight.
These Tar Heels are used to adversity by now, starting with the news that head coach Sylvia Hatchell would be taking a leave to get treatment for leukemia, to the adjustment of a roster full of freshmen, to a stretch in late January to early February in which they lost three straight games to unranked teams.
But the team that finished fifth in the Atlantic Coast Conference now is one win away from the program's first Final Four since 2007 because of its gritty ability to get up off the mat.
Diamond DeShields, the national freshman of the year, went down for the first time with an ankle injury just 2:23 into the game. She hobbled off again after "reinjuring a previous knee injury" with 7:51 to go in the first half.
She came off the floor after both and convinced Calder to put her back in.
"I told him I was ready to play," said DeShields, who said she will be ready Tuesday against the Cardinal. "I didn't want to have that burden on my shoulders of not having done everything that I could to contribute to the team win. I didn't think I was holding the team back with my injuries."
She finished with 19 points, but didn't score in the final seven minutes, ceding the offense to fellow freshman center Stephanie Mavunga, who finished with 13 points, nine rebounds and a huge 3-point play with 2:40 to play to move North Carolina back out to a 59-51 lead after South Carolina had closed to within two. Mavunga played the final 16:49 of the game with three and then, ultimately, four fouls.
Junior guard Brittany Rountree also played a huge role in the final minutes, hitting 5-of-6 free throws down the stretch to keep South Carolina at arm's length.
The disappointment was evident from South Carolina, a No. 1 seed for the first time in school history looking to prove it belonged in the conversation with the national title contenders.
"This probably won't be the last time you see a South Carolina women's basketball team at this late stage of the NCAA tournament," said South Carolina coach Dawn Staley, who led the Gamecocks to the regional semifinal in two of the past three seasons. "We are going to look toward our future."
But South Carolina didn't get enough offense to win the game, hitting just nine field goals in the first half and needing to ride the post scoring of freshman Alaina Coates and Aleigsha Welch late when the backcourt couldn't hit shots.
South Carolina starting guards Tiffany Mitchell and Khadijah Sessions were a combined 4-for-22 in the game. And Welch and Mitchell sat significant minutes with foul trouble in the first half, the Gamecocks going into the locker room down 11.
"They were clogging," Mitchell said. "Making it very difficult for us to drive into the lane."
North Carolina, in consultation with Hatchell -- still not with the team as she finishes treatment for leukemia -- came in with a new defensive game plan. Calder said he installed it yesterday.
"I'd rather keep that a little bit to ourselves," Calder said. "But for us not to have practiced it very much at all, Diamond and the players did a tremendous job adjusting."
But it was effective early against the Gamecocks and ultimately gave his team the ability to pull off the upset.
In the first game of the day, Stanford (32-3) avoided the slow start it had experienced in the first two games of the tournament and jumped out strong, matched over the first 12 minutes by the Nittany Lions.
But once Penn State ran off seven straight points to take a 23-19 lead with 9:36 to go, Stanford turned it up another notch. The Cardinal embarked on a 14-0 run that was the defining moment in the game and closed the half with a 44-30 lead. From there it was all about seizing the moment and not letting go. Spurred on by more than 6,700 in Maples Pavilion, Stanford never let Penn State within 11 points the rest of the way.
It was another superstar performance for Chiney Ogwumike, who finished with 29 points and 15 rebounds, matching her career-high scoring in an NCAA tournament game. As has been the case in Stanford's best games this season, she had plenty of help.
Cardinal freshman guard Lili Thompson bottled up Penn State's All-American guard Maggie Lucas, limiting her to a season-low six points, only the second single-digit game she had posted this season. But Thompson's stellar defense allowed VanDerveer to do what she loves to do in the big games, make a team find a way to play without its best player.
"Maggie Lucas hasn't scored six points since the third grade," VanDerveer said. "She can flat-out score. ... Lili really understood that this was her job and for us to be successful, she had to do it."
Thompson said the coaches provided her plenty of film on Lucas.
"I studied her game and just decided that I wanted to shut her down and make other people score for them and that would be the best way I could contribute," Thompson said.
Penn State head coach Coquese Washington complimented Stanford on the job it did on limiting her best player.
"She didn't get very many clean, open looks," Washington said. "They ran secondary and tertiary defenders at her. They made her take tough shots all night."
Stanford guard Amber Orrange had what VanDerveer called "maybe the best game of her career at Stanford" with 18 points on 7-of-11 shooting. Fifth-year senior forward Mikaela Ruef did a little of everything, with 11 points, 13 rebounds, five assists and two steals.
And the Cardinal found what has been missing the past few weeks, a true sense of itself at its best.
"It feels good," Ogwumike said. "I think as a team, the past month or two months we've been sort of stagnant and we've been fighting to get out of that. We want to play with energy and confidence. ... I think we just want to play where we feel good about how we're playing. I think this tournament that has been building for us."