On March 15, Stanford was named the No. 1 overall seed for the NCAA. The next day, 13 players, four coaches and a team of support staff flew to San Antonio without booking a return trip.
Much like when the team first left Santa Clara County in November, no one knew when they would come home. Unlike last time, when a county directive finally marked the return to Maples Pavilion, this time Stanford’s play on the basketball court would determine the length of its stay.
Clearly, the team enjoyed the scenery. Stanford (29-2, 19-2 Pac-12) reached the final weekend of the tournament, the Final Four, for the 14th time in program history. The reward: a clash of heavyweights with South Carolina (26-4, 14-2 SEC) on Friday.
There is not the typical pageantry of a Final Four. The biggest change Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer noticed from the first two weeks and four games was the food, which is now more buffet-style than pre-packaged. Even though Stanford arrived at the gym for practice with a police escort, the hotel Stanford commuted from was the same.
“It’s a COVID Final Four. It’s muted, there’s not the people around, there’s not your bands on the sendoff,” VanDerveer said. “We are thrilled to be here, and we are really, really excited to be playing in the Final Four, and we’re really thankful that there is one.”
The focus is on basketball and the team, where VanDerveer likes it. The Hall of Fame head coach has been here before. She knows how close Stanford came to an early flight home. As she has throughout her entire career, in the Elite Eight, she pushed the right buttons to help Stanford recover from a 12-point halftime deficit.
Her perspective on the adversity is refreshing. At Thursday’s Zoom press conference with the media, she spoke about how the off-court tribulations prepared her team to believe in itself. Then, she broadened the scope to speak on how the on-court experiences would help her players off the court later in life. She called herself a “proud Mama Bear,” shouting out Sonja Henning ’91, now a top executive at Nike; Kate Starbird ’97; a professor at the University of Washington, WNBPA Director of Player Relations Jayne Appel-Marinelli ’10; president of the WNBPA Nneka Ogwumike ’12 and NBA Chief Innovation Officer Amy Brooks ’96.
VanDerveer also recognized the importance of sisterhood to the team’s ability to manage the season. The team is no stranger to both metaphorical and literal sisterhood, beginning with Ogwumike and her sister Chiney Ogwumike ’14, continuing with Bonnie ’15 and Karlie ’17 Samuelson and now with twin junior guards Lacie and Lexie Hull.
“Having sisters on your team is so beneficial because this team to me has been a team of sisterhood,” VanDerveer said. “If you don’t really care about each other, 100 days on the road could really get old. But we’re going into our third week and it’s great to be around these young women. I think they really enjoy being around each other, and they want to win for each other and they want to play hard for each other.”
“This season has definitely brought our team closer together, living together in a hotel for a few months, living together in a dorm,” Lexie Hull said. “We see each other pretty much every hour of every day. I think we’re very fortunate because we really like each other and it’s not a bad thing to have to live with each other.”
“When it comes to playing with my sister, I think that it’s playing with one sister, but it’s also playing with 12,” she added.
When it comes to playing hard, the Hulls have the corner on the market. Lexie Hull’s 21 points kept Stanford in the game against Louisville. Her nine rebounds provided extremely necessary extra possessions. For the most part, Stanford lacked that energy in the first half. It took an impassioned VanDerveer speech and a little help from the Hulls’ grandma to get Stanford back into the game. On the biggest stage, Stanford is finally able to play in front of fans.
“Coming out into that second half against Louisville, we had a lot of support from our crowd,” Lexie Hull said. “I think that really helped us and when we were going on that run we could hear them, they brought a lot.”
“For me, I don’t hear it at all,” VanDerveer said. “My assistants will say afterwards, ‘Well, did you hear this?’ I’m like no. I guess I’m just in my own world just kind of watching the game. But I’m really glad that our family and friends are able to be here.”
It makes sense that VanDerveer was in her own world last game as the season cratered around her. Her team, however, picked it up in the second half and will now play South Carolina. The task is not dwelling on the past.
South Carolina has allowed just 48.5 points per game in the NCAA Tournament after winning the SEC Tournament. The only losses on the season were to fellow one-seeds UConn and NC State, two-seed Texas A&M and three-seed Tennessee. All of that came while facing opponents with a combined .674 winning percentage.
South Carolina has not been out-rebounded in a game. In 13 games against ranked opponents, South Carolina has averaged 46.4 rebounds and a plus-11.8 margin.
“The most obvious thing is that we have to rebound,” VanDerveer said. “They’re a team that outrebounds their opponents by 15, and if our team is not going to be on the glass, we’ll be coming home Saturday morning. We must rebound.”
“Another thing with them is that you’ve got to limit turnovers because they really get out and run in transition,” VanDerveer added.
Guard Zia Cooke leads the team in scoring in a one-two punch with fellow sophomore forward Aliyah Boston. Guards Aliyah Saxton and Laeticia Amihere are threats as well. Still, most of the damage is at the free throw line. South Carolina is 1-3 in games when it made eight free throws or fewer.
For Stanford, the goal is not difficult to state: Prevent the opponent from doing what it likes. In practice, it can be a challenge, as Stanford found out for the first 20 minutes of the last game.
“I think we need to come out for 40 minutes,” Lexie Hull said. “South Carolina is a very, very skilled and talented team and I think if we come out in that first half, playing like we did against Louisville that we’ll dig ourselves too big of a hole and that can’t happen again. So we need to come out ready, come out aggressive and not hold back.”
On the injury front, the status of freshman forward Cameron Brink is unclear. While VanDerveer said she trusts her entire roster, her first choice is most certainly Brink, whose 86 blocks on the season are seventh in the country.
“I think she’s doing well,” VanDerveer said. “She tweaked her leg a little bit so, hopefully, it’s minor.”
It is a weird season. Still, Stanford has the opportunity to keep playing ball. At the moment, the team is enjoying living in what Lexie Hull joked was a dorm with its coaching staff.
Friday, the Cardinal has a chance to reach the national championship. Tip-off from the Alamodome is at 3 p.m. PT.