W. Basketball: Final Phase

Cardinal is two wins away from a national title

(JOSE LUIS VILLEGAS/Sacramento Bee/MCT)

The No. 1 Cardinal women will face No. 3 Oklahoma in the Final Four of the NCAA Women’s Division I Basketball Championship at the Alamodome in San Antonio on Sunday, after sneaking past Xavier with a dramatic buzzer beater four days ago.

“I just feel like we’ve been given a second basketball life,” said Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer of the victory over the Musketeers. “And I know our team will make the most of it. We saw our season pass before our eyes. It was over. We just are so thankful to be playing, so appreciative of the opportunity to go to San Antonio, that I know our team will make the absolute most of it.”

The Xavier game was the first in this year’s tournament where the Cardinal was pushed by its opposition, and the first contest since UCLA in January where the winning margin for Stanford had been less than 15 points.

“We don’t want close games,” said junior forward Kayla Pedersen. “But it happened, and you can only learn from that. We know that we can be tested now. We will persevere in tough situations. We all have a little bit of a newfound trust for each other. We can always count on each other. That will only make us better.”

For two players, senior center Jayne Appel and redshirt senior guard Rosalyn Gold-Onwude, each game has particular importance because a loss would end their collegiate careers.

At every stage throughout this season, Appel has had only one thing on her mind—the national championship—and the experience of sitting on the sidelines after fouling out in a below-par performance against Xavier should be all the motivation she needs.

“I think Jayne will come out and play her very best,” VanDerveer said. “I think she’s been given a second time around. And how often do you get a second chance?”

The last time the Cardinal (35-1, 18-0 Pac-10) played the Sooners (27-10, 11-5 Big-12) was also in San Antonio, in a 88-74 victory in a regional semifinal at the AT&T Center in 2006. A young Gold-Onwude opened the scoring with a three-pointer. Now, as the longest serving member of the team, she has grown up to become a rock at the back for the Card.

“She’s a huge part of our team’s success,” VanDerveer said. “Her defense is something that really puts her up on a little bit of a pedestal for me. We start with who’s she going to guard and do our game plan from there.”

(RANDY PENCH/Sacramento Bee/MCT)

Oklahoma will not present the same size challenge as Xavier, but the speed of junior guard Danielle Robinson will need to be contained; and she may well be a target for Gold-Onwude’s attention. Robinson is the Sooners’ top scorer this year, with an average of 16.6 points per game, but is not the only offensive threat in her team. Senior forward Nyeshia Stevenson, after scoring 14.5 points per game in the regular season, shot 12-of-17 from the field and scored 31 points to lead her team to win the Kansas City Regional Final over No. 4 Kentucky.

“It’s a great matchup for our team,” VanDerveer said. “With some teams they are extreme, and we are not an extreme team. And Oklahoma’s not an extreme team.

“We’re very similar,” she continued. “They play about seven people, we play seven or eight people. They have an inside post presence with [senior center Abi] Olajuwon, we have Jayne and [sophomore forward] Nneka [Ogwumike]. We both like to run; we both run the triangle offense. So there’s probably more similarities than differences, but we might be a little bigger overall inside.”

In the second semi-final No. 1 Connecticut will square up with freshman sensation Brittney Griner and her No. 4 Baylor team.

It will be the Lady Bears’ second trip to the Final Four and the first for the current incarnation of its team. All of the other three teams were in last year’s contest, where they were joined by Louisville, which did not even make it into the NCAA Tournament this season.

Stanford may be hoping for a chance to get some revenge over UConn for knocking it out of the tournament at this stage last year, and for dishing out its only defeat in the current season, but for that to happen both still need to win on Sunday. Baylor and Oklahoma might be slight underdogs, but have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

“It’s like now you’re in a new tournament in itself, the Final Four,” Gold-Onwude said. “Its a completely different experience than any part of our season—on the level of media exposure, the level of events, the level of pressure, what’s at stake. It’s completely different.”

Both games will air live on ESPN on Sunday. The first game, between the Cardinal and the Sooners, is at 4 p.m. PST and the second, the Huskies against the Lady Bears, will tip off at 6 p.m. PST.

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