W. Basketball: NCAA Tournament run begins Saturday against UC-Riverside

March 19, 2010, 8:17 p.m.

Tomorrow, the 29th NCAA Women’s Division I Basketball Championship First Round tips off at Maples Pavilion with No. 1 seed Stanford facing No. 16 seed UC-Riverside in the second game of the day.

The Cardinal (31-1, 18-0 Pac-10) is undisputedly the favorite against the Highlanders (17-15, 11-5 Big West). In the six previous times Stanford has been awarded a top seed, it reached the Final Four on four occasions and won two national titles, but this is March, so nothing is ever certain.

“It doesn’t matter who you’re playing or where you’re playing,” said Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer. “You have to come out and play really well.”

This is a sage piece of advice that the team will need to keep in mind throughout the championship. The last time Stanford earned a No. 1 seed, in 1998, it lost at home against Harvard in the very first round, which remains the only time a No. 1 seed has lost to a No. 16 seed in either the men’s or women’s NCAA Tournament.

In the first game tomorrow, No. 8 seed Iowa will face No. 9 seed Rutgers. The Hawkeyes (20-13, 10-8 Big Ten) finished fourth in the Big Ten Conference this season and lost a narrow tournament final to NCAA No. 2 seed Ohio State two weeks ago. Their opposition, the Scarlet Knights (19-14, 9-7 Big East), tied for sixth in a conference that includes NCAA No. 1 and 3 seeds, Connecticut and West Virginia, and reached the semifinals of their tournament.

Should both Rutgers and Stanford win tomorrow, they will meet for the second time this season, after an 81-66 Cardinal victory in Piscataway in November.

UC-Riverside, however, is an unknown proposition for the Card, which has never played the southern Californian team before. The Highlanders turned around a 4-12 season to place third in the Big West Conference, and then converted this into a victory over regular season champion UC-Davis in their conference tournament to secure an automatic bid into the NCAAs.

They are led by junior guard Alyssa Morris, who averages 13.4 points and 6.3 rebounds per game, and will be hoping that senior forward Amber Cox can repeat her performance from the Big West Championship. Before fouling out, she netted 25 points, going 10-12 from the field and 5-5 on three-pointers, something that might prove a valuable skill if the Cardinal succeeds in keeping the Highlanders on the perimeter.

In a season in which record upon record has been set and award upon award received by both the Stanford team and individual players, one thing has really stood out, the drive and determination to go all the way this year. Senior post Jayne Appel has exemplified this, unfazed by becoming only the third player in Cardinal history to join both the 2,000-point and 1,000-rebound club and setting the Pac-10 career rebounding mark, she has made no secret of the fact she wants one thing and one thing only: a national championship.

Pac-10 Women’s Basketball Scholar-Athlete of the Year Appel and her teammates will have had very little time to look forward to tomorrow’s game as Stanford’s Winter Quarter reached its climax of final exams this week. They know, however, that they must stay focused from here on in.

“Throughout the entire season our coaches have talked to us about having no excuses,” said redshirt senior guard Rosalyn Gold-Onwude. “The other team isn’t going to care, so I’m going to start right there and say that we can’t come into any games worrying about finals or lack of sleep. We have to be ready to go.”

The Highlanders, and whoever else may lie in the Cardinal’s path, will be facing a team on top of its game, bursting with both talent and confidence. This was underlined when VanDerveer, Appel and sophomore forward Nnemkadi Ogwumike were listed among the WBCA’s Region 8 honorees and the big three of Appel, Ogwumike and junior forward Kayla Pedersen were named finalists for the John R. Wooden Award.

“I don’t think people should underestimate us,” Ogwumike said, “and at the same time we can’t underestimate ourselves, because it takes a lot to do it, and I think we have what it takes.”

If everything goes according to plan for the top two teams in the country, Stanford will face off against No. 1 Connecticut for the second time this year in the Alamodome on April 6. The Cardinal is undefeated in 22 games, having swept both the Pac-10 regular season and Pac-10 Tournament, and has dropped just two contests in the last 14 months (53 games).

Meanwhile, the only team that has kept Stanford from a perfect record in this time, UConn, is on a record-breaking 72-game streak spanning two years and bringing two Big East Conference titles, two Big East Tournament titles and one National Championship.

The last team to defeat the Huskies? Stanford, at the Final Four in 2008, 82-73.

But before that rematch can happen there are 62 games and over 40 hours of coast-to-coast action to be played out.

“What really makes tournament time, March Madness, so great,” Gold Onwude said, “is the fact that both UConn and us have to get to the Final Four, have to get to the national championship game.

“A loss is the end of your season. A win is one step closer to a national championship.”

The long wait is over, the Big Dance is back and the Madness is only just beginning.

The game between Iowa and Rutgers is scheduled for 5 p.m. at Maples Pavilion and will be followed by Stanford against UC-Riverside at 7:30 p.m. The second round will then be played on Monday evening, with the victor moving on to the regional finals in Sacramento next weekend.

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