When the Stanford women’s basketball team steps onto the court at Maples Sunday, it will have been two weeks since it clinched the program’s seventh consecutive Pac-12 tournament title by narrowly defeating UCLA 51-49.
“That win showed a lot of character. Being in a situation like that that we’re not used to I think is good for us in the long run to really know how to close games, how to win, and come from behind and fight and scratch and claw and do whatever we can [to win],” said senior forward Joslyn Tinkle.
“Obviously, we struggled but Amber [Orrange] really stepped up for our team and showed a lot of maturity as a sophomore coming in and taking over that game,” Tinkle added. “But it’s not about individual play and it goes to show that we have more to our game. We step up for one another and have each other’s backs.”
The championship game was perfect grooming for the NCAA Tournament. With both teams competing at such a high level, the winner was decided by the team that wanted it the most, had the most determination and fought the hardest.
“That’s how the [NCAA] tournament is. The team with the most desire and the team with the most toughness always comes out on top, no matter what the situation,” said junior forward Chiney Ogwumike.
Ogwumike was recently named one of four finalists to the 2013 Naismith Women’s College Player of the Year Award. Ogwumike and Baylor’s Brittney Griner are the top contenders for the award.
Now, the No. 1 seed Card (31-2, 17-1) turns its attention to the greater task at hand: The Big Dance. This year marks the program’s 26th straight NCAA Tournament appearance. Sunday’s game against No. 16 seed Tulsa is the start of Stanford’s journey to a sixth consecutive Final Four. The Card would become the only school in tournament history to achieve that.
“We’re playing a team that I know absolutely nothing about with Tulsa. But I like the variety. I’m excited to play a new team and get a good look. We just want to play well,” said VanDerveer.
Tulsa (17-16, 8-8) won the Conference USA Tournament title led by senior guard Taleya Mayberry (18.7 ppg, 4.2 rpg). This is the second tournament appearance for the Golden Hurricane. Last time, in 2008 as the 12th seed, it upset fifth-seeded North Carolina State in the opening round.
If the Card makes it to the regional finals in Spokane, it will most likely get its rematch for the regular season loss against No. 2 seed Cal, which was delayed when UCLA knocked Cal off before the Cardinal and Bears could square off in the Pac-12 championship game.
“We were excited [to see Cal in our bracket]; we weren’t really surprised, and it wasn’t something so crazy. It’ll be a fun rivalry game and they’re a good team. We went at it earlier this year, so we’re just taking it one game at a time,” Tinkle said.
If it advances past the Golden Bears to the Final Four, the Card will likely face No. 1 seed Baylor. Baylor knocked Stanford out of the National Championship game last year, defeating it 59-47. This year, however, the Card has already beaten Baylor 71-69, handing the Lady Bears its only loss of the season.
“Going into that game [Baylor] as an underdog we had nothing to lose and it was a huge confident booster. Baylor is a fantastic team and anything can happen on a given day. Knowing that [we beat them] takes away that intimidation factor,” said Tinkle. “They’re a great team and we know that we’ve done it [beaten them] before.”
“Every game you play in the preseason and in conference is a test that you’ll draw on when you go through March [Madness],” said Ogwumike. “So [we] just have to be confident knowing that [we’re] going to go in to the tournament with a lot of experience behind us. We’re a young team so hopefully those experiences and a few losses, and learning how to win and learning how to play for 40 minutes will really help us.”
Junior guard Toni Kokenis, who started in last year’s Final Four game, will be “unavailable” for the 11th straight game and possibly for the remainder of the season. Kokenis will have a chance to play with almost the same team next season, though, as the Card graduates only one senior.
This week will be Tinkle’s last game played at Maples Pavilion. This season Tinkle won her first All-Pac 12 Team recognition and finishes her career with the fourth-most blocks in program history and as second-leading scorer.
“[Tinkle’s] leadership is unspoken, she does so much for our team … and that’s why we are successful,” said Ogwumike. “She really puts herself behind the team.”
In order to be successful in this year’s tournament, the Card will need continued contributions and leadership from multiple players, especially considering the triple teams being thrown at Ogwumike recently. However, with other players stepping up like sophomore point guard Amber Orrange, and sophomore guard Bonnie Samuelson knocking down shots on the perimeter, that tactic may not work for opponents. Ogwumike will just have to play more high post and face up to shoot like she did against Baylor in order to stay away from the triple teams under the basket.
“This team has really exceeded expectations every step of the way. We have had great leadership for the most part,” said VanDerveer. “We have been staying healthy. We’ve had a lot of different people contribute and step up in big games. I’m excited about how people have improved.”
The Card take on Tulsa in the first round of the NCAA Tournament at Maples Pavilion Sunday with tip off scheduled for 2:20 p.m. PT.