Thirty-one years ago, Stanford’s senior point guard was nervous. She was the team leader, returning to her hometown for the Final Four, and had already become a media darling.
Pregame, warming up in a cavernous arena, she walked over to an assistant coach, because some things are better shared with an assistant coach than the head coach. Especially when the head coach is Tara VanDerveer.
Jennifer Azzi ’90 told then-assistant coach Julie Plank that she was nervous. Because as familiar as the story sounds, this is not the first time that Stanford has played on the biggest stage with a chance to fulfill a dream.
“That’s okay,” Plank told her. “But if you’re nervous, look out there. Look at Trisha [Stevens ’91], look at Sonja [Henning ’91], look at Val [Whiting ’93]. Don’t you think they’re nervous? They need you so you need to just get over it and play.”
“I was like,” Azzi remembered, “‘Okay, that’s great advice. My team needs me. I need to get over it.’ And that was it.”
In 1990, Stanford advanced to the first Final Four in program history in Knoxville, Tenn. behind Azzi. The first-seeded University of Tennessee was supposed to meet Stanford in the Final Four, but faced Virginia for the fourth consecutive year and for the first time lost.
Without Tennessee in contention, Azzi became the story of the weekend. Local fans converted from UT Orange to Stanford Cardinal. “I was the next best thing I guess,” Azzi said. A total of 20,023 attended the final in Thompson-Boling Arena to witness Azzi become the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player and Stanford win its first national championship.
Stanford had been preparing for the moment ever since Azzi stepped on to campus with the enticement from VanDerveer that Stanford would win a title. Before her senior season, VanDerveer brought in Stanford and USA Olympics swimming coach Richard Quick to talk to the team. He told them that they had to start being champions then. To start whispering to each other during practice, “Stanford: national champions.” So the team hung up posters around the locker room: “NCAA champions 1990 — Get comfortable with it.” And that was the phrase that guided the team all year.
In the championship game, the confidence was evident. Stanford navigated deficits and incorporated a roster full of scorers. Azzi had 17. Stevens had 16. Current Stanford assistant coach Katy Steding had 18 and set a tournament record that still stands with six 3-pointers. Henning led all Stanford scorers with 21.
Azzi was the center of attention, but everyone contributed. She was relaxed, or as relaxed as you can be playing basketball in April. Plank’s encouragement calmed her nerves.
“I was all over papers, news, TV and everything but now you throw in that element too,” Azzi said. “You tune it out, you’re excited to be home and it’s fun.”
But so far, fun — or at least calm — has been elusive for Stanford senior guard Kiana Williams. Because Williams, Stanford’s unquestioned leader on the court, has been under pressure. In her own head. Trying to win the tournament in the Sweet 16. With the added stress of social media and the ESPN segments about her return to San Antonio, it makes sense.
But knowing the player nicknamed Skippy, it makes a lot more sense that she settles in today. Plays her heart out in front of over 50 family and friends.
Because just like VanDerveer schemed to ensure her team was ready to be national champions back in 1990, the Hall of Famer has prepared Williams for the role. At first, San Antonio was just the Final Four destination. Reaching that stage is never a guarantee. So making it to her hometown was the offseason motivation and the guiding star for Williams.
“Ki,” VanDerveer would say, “in order to get to San Antonio this is what we need to be doing.”
“And so all spring, all summer, all fall, it was like this was a goal to be here,” VanDerveer said.
Then, San Antonio became the host of the entire tournament. As soon as Stanford cut down the nets on its Pac-12 Tournament victory over UCLA, San Antonio was the next flight. It was a long journey from where Stanford was at the end of November, or even at the beginning of January. For the first time, VanDerveer revealed that she had uncertainty.
“There was a point where, I don’t even know that I should admit this, but I was like ‘I don’t know that we can keep doing this,’ in terms of going to Santa Cruz, testing like we were testing,” VanDerveer said. “There were some days where I just said, ‘Whoa, this might be too much. We might have to just take a pause ourselves.’ But we have great leadership, we have competitive, motivated, talented, really strong women on our team and they have dug deep. They’ve had to do it off the court, and we’ve had to do it on the court.”
San Antonio became the next step. A championship became the next step. The ending that Azzi called “storybook” all the way back in 1990 could be repurposed for the 21st century.
“We’re on the edge of a dream come true for Kiana Williams,” VanDerveer said. “Kiana has been just a phenomenal player to coach. She’s incredibly unselfish, hard working, plays at both ends of the floor, very talented, skilled player and a team leader in how she just wills our team to winning — the shot she made in the lane last night. Her defense, just, you know, she does so much for our team. I want her to be, I want her to be relaxed. I want her to enjoy playing in her hometown and, you know this is her home game. And just to really have fun. She has so many fans here that are cheering her on and her family. I think it’s really special for her.”
Williams does not need to do it all for Stanford to win. She needs to play solid defense, distribute and find her rhythm in offense. She needs to show her teammates that she is not nervous. Because for every Stevens, Henning and Whiting there is a Lexie Hull, Haley Jones and Cameron Brink.
So after a season followed by a tournament of answering the same questions about Williams and San Antonio, VanDerveer went back in history.
“I will just say that we did win a national championship in Knoxville, Tennessee for our senior point guard Jennifer Azzi,” VanDerveer said. “And so, it would be fun to do that for Ki being down here.”