Commentary

Stanford still chasing third title

Cardinal have played in two title games since 2008; they last won in 1992

Originally Published: April 5, 2014
By Michelle Smith | espnW.com

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The visual had to sting a little. Stanford's players and coaches were gathered in their team lounge, looking at the NCAA brackets being revealed three weeks ago, when ESPN posted a graphic showing the three teams with the most Final Four appearances in the past 20 years -- and the number of titles they've won.

Connecticut was first with 14 appearances and eight titles. Tennessee was next with 11 appearances and five titles. And then Stanford, with nine appearances and zero titles. A big "0" next to Stanford's name.

Chiney Ogwumike was talking to a teammate when the graphic appeared. She admitted she might have cringed a little.

"It was honest. It's a true fact, I guess," said the senior All-American, who was named to the WBCA All-America team Saturday for the third consecutive year. "We don't think about it, we don't think about the past. We build on the legacy of the past, but we just care about tomorrow and the next day and the next day. History is what it is."

The Cardinal, who will face Connecticut in the national semifinals as a decided underdog on Sunday (ESPN and WatchESPN, 8:30 p.m. ET), have history all right.

[+] EnlargeChiney Ogwumike
AP Photo/Mark HumphreyChiney Ogwumike says Stanford is an improved team since its 76-57 loss to UConn on Nov. 11.

After a 12-year drought, Candice Wiggins led Stanford back to the Final Four in 2008. This weekend marks six appearances in seven years. No program in the country but Connecticut has appeared in the national semifinals more times in that span; the Huskies are here for a record seventh straight season.

But Stanford, despite having reached the championship game in 2008 and 2010, doesn't have a trophy to show for it, the gulf between titles for one of the nation's most storied programs now 22 years wide.

"It has been frustrating to come here and lose, because you don't work the whole season and improve the whole season to get to the Final Four and lose in the Final Four," said Stanford fifth-year senior Mikaela Ruef, who is at her fourth Final Four. "I mean, the Final Four is great to come to -- we don't just come here to get the sweet new gear and go through all the hoopla; the goal is to come here and win."

Stanford has had its opportunities to win.

In 2008, Stanford defeated Connecticut in the semifinals and advanced to face a loaded Tennessee team in the title game, where the Lady Vols soundly beat the Cardinal 64-48.

In 2010, the Cardinal were the loaded team -- with a roster that included four future WNBA players in Jayne Appel, Kayla Pedersen, Jeanette Pohlen and Nneka Ogwumike -- and had Connecticut pinned to the mat with 20-12 halftime lead in the championship game in San Antonio. But Appel, who had been Stanford's stalwart presence inside, was playing on an injured ankle and what turned out to be a stress fracture in her foot. Her struggles were unprecedented; she shot 0-for-12 from the floor in the game. Huskies star Maya Moore busted out in the second half, and Connecticut went on to snatch the title out of Stanford's grasp.

"That one was devastating," Ruef said.

And one year later, anchored by Pedersen, Pohlen and Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike, the Cardinal again looked like title favorites. They had ended Connecticut's 90-game win streak earlier in the season and came to Indianapolis experienced and hungry. Facing off against upstart Texas A&M in the national semifinals, Stanford had a 10-point lead with a little more than six minutes to go, but allowed the Aggies to get back into the game. Stanford lost 63-62 to end a season that could well have ended with a title.

"You can shake your head at the things that happen in this game," Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma said. "What's harder? That's the question. Is it getting here or winning it? I think it's harder to get here year after year. ... When it's all said and done, nobody is going to argue that [Stanford coach] Tara [VanDerveer] is one of the best coaches in the history of this game."

Only a few people outside of Palo Alto believe this is the year for the Cardinal to break through. They are facing a Connecticut team that has been the heavy title favorite since the moment it cut down the nets a year ago in New Orleans. The Huskies are talented at every position, healthy, and experienced at both winning, and at beating Stanford; Connecticut has won the past three meetings between the two programs.

Tara VanDerveer joked earlier this week that her team is being viewed as a "JV team" to its semifinal opponent. On Saturday, she joked that if her team is considered the hors d'oeuvres, "we're not going to get swallowed easily."

[+] EnlargeTara VanDerveer
AP Photo/John BazemoreThat UConn is the favorite Sunday doesn't mean much to Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer: "If we're going to be someone's hors d'oeuvres," she said Saturday, "we're not going to get swallowed easily."

But VanDerveer has never behaved publicly as if failing to win a title in the past seven years is a disappointment that she carries. Does it burn in private? Associate head coach Amy Tucker said the coaching staff has experienced "zero frustration" over coming away without a title.

"If you polled the 330 other teams that aren't here, they would say no," Tucker said. "There's motivation for sure, but not frustration, no anger. It's not easy to get to the Final Four. It's a long season, there are injuries, things have to break the right way for you to be in that position. We understand that as coaches. I don't know that fans always understand. We feel very blessed to be here. But we are not satisfied. We are here to play well and win."

Tucker said she believes the semifinal loss to Texas A&M in Indianapolis was the program's biggest missed opportunity.

"There's obviously frustration on not playing well when we get here and not controlling our destiny a little bit better," Tucker said. "I don't think we've always come to the Final Four with the most talent, but we have enough to compete."

Ogwumike, playing her final weekend as a collegiate athlete, said the Cardinal will not be intimidated on Sunday. They know the lay of the land very well.

"We just want to come out and play our game," Ogwumike said. "We're different [since a Nov. 11 loss versus UConn], we are improved and we're confident, and we're going to try to play together and play tough."

For VanDerveer, the clock is seemingly ticking. One could argue that this team is the Hall of Fame coach's best shot to win another title, even potentially her last trip to the Final Four. After winning her 900th game earlier this season, VanDerveer joked that she is unlikely to coach long enough to get to 1,000. And with the departure of Chiney Ogwumike -- ending a string of All-Americans that began with Nicole Powell in 2001 -- the Cardinal might find themselves retooling over the next couple of years.

When asked on Tuesday night, after her team defeated North Carolina in the Elite Eight to punch a ticket to Nashville, whether she was angry or frustrated that Stanford hasn't won a title during this stretch of success, VanDerveer refused to bite.

"I am so excited for our team to be here and happy," VanDerveer said. "You know, we didn't go anywhere last year, and we had some kind of dips in the road this year that I really think helped us become who we are. We'll be ready."

Michelle Smith

Contributor, espnW.com

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