When the confetti fell on the 40-0 Baylor women’s basketball team on Tuesday night, it wasn’t that surprising. After all, the Bears were untouchable this season, and had relatively little trouble dusting off the Cardinal in the semifinal on Sunday night. But the whole time the Bears were cutting the nets down, I kept wondering just how the Cardinal, which had been to five straight Final Fours, hadn’t managed to win one, just one, title during that time.
When you go to the Final Four five times in a row, you almost expect a team to back into a championship win. If you keep giving yourself chances to win it all, you’re eventually bound to win one, right?
Unfortunately, that’s not the case.
Instead, the 2007-2012 Stanford Cardinal is destined to go down in history as the women’s college basketball version of the early ’90s Buffalo Bills — a great team filled with great players, but not champions.
The sad thing is, the Cardinal’s championship window, at least for now, seems to have passed. It’s hard to imagine that next year’s team will be nearly as competitive or complete. Without Nneka Ogwumike and with a group of relatively inexperienced freshmen expected to step up and play major roles, the Cardinal will probably still be the favorites to win the Pac-12, but not national title contenders. So just how did this window, when Stanford was so good for so long, pass without the Cardinal taking home a national championship?
Surely it’s not talent — Candice Wiggins, Jayne Appel and Nnemkadi Ogwumike are three of the greatest players ever to play college basketball. It’s definitely not the coach — Tara VanDerveer is already in the Hall of Fame for her efforts as a coach. So why has the Cardinal been unable to bring a big, shiny trophy home to the Farm over the last five Final Fours?
In three of those five trips, it’s safe to say that the Cardinal was beaten by better teams. This year, Baylor and Brittney Griner were not going to be stopped on their road to a title. In 2009, an undefeated UConn team that was in the middle of the program’s 90-game win streak handily defeated Stanford in the semifinals, 83-64, and in 2008, the Tennessee Volunteers, led by all-universe forward Candace Parker, smashed the Cardinal in the title game, 64-48.
That said, Stanford did have two very real chances to win a title during that stretch. In 2010, the Cardinal held an eight-point halftime lead over the same UConn team that had beaten it the year before, but eventually succumbed to the talented duo of Maya Moore and Tina Charles, 53-47. While the Cardinal did have four superstars on that team — Appel, Ogwumike, Jeanette Pohlen and Kayla Pedersen — bad luck, coupled with an ankle injury to Appel, was the main factor that kept the Cardinal from bringing home a ring. Appel, suffering from a sprained ankle and a stress fracture in the same foot, went 0-for-12 from the field that night in San Antonio, scored zero points and ultimately failed to be the difference-maker that she had been in every game in her career up to that point.
And as tough as that loss was to swallow, Stanford’s best chance to win a title was last year, when Nneka Ogwumike, Chiney Ogwumike, Pedersen and Pohlen all had magnificent seasons — but it all fell apart in six terrible minutes in the semifinal game against Texas A&M. Leading by 10 points with six minutes left to play in the game, everything began to implode for the Cardinal. First, the Aggies cranked up the defensive pressure. Next, several dubious foul calls started to go against the Cardinal. Finally, Chiney Ogwumike fouled out, leaving Stanford without its best defensive player, and the collapse was complete. The Aggies went on to win the national title, but you couldn’t help but feel that the Cardinal players had almost been cheated out of the national title that was supposed to finally be theirs.
Over these past five Final Four runs, it’s been extremely disappointing that the Cardinal hasn’t taken home a title, mostly because it has played so well for so long and still hasn’t achieved its ultimate goal. Sometimes you get beat by a better team. Sometimes you’re victims of bad luck and injuries. Other times there’s really no way to explain just how you couldn’t pull off the win.
Altogether, it appears the moral of the story is clear: No matter how hard you’ve worked, and no matter how many times you get a chance to achieve your goal, you’re not guaranteed anything. And that’s a lesson the Cardinal has learned in all too bitter a fashion.
Jack Blanchat knows that all his hard work will not guarantee feedback from readers. Help him achieve his goal at blanchat “at” stanford.edu or follow him on Twitter @jmblanchat.