Country music was blasting, a country twang was heard in the voices of the players buzzing with excitement, fried chicken was being munched on and “NASHVILLE” was printed across the white board. The locker room was filled with energy, as the southward-bound Stanford’s women’s basketball team celebrated its regional final victory over North Carolina. For the 11th time under head coach Tara VanDerveer, the Cardinal are headed to the Final Four of the NCAA Tournament.
The Cardinal’s 74-65 victory over the Tar Heels wasn’t a guarantee from the opening tip, but as All-American senior forward Chiney Ogwumike said post-game, it was “heart, heart, heart” and not “perfectly executed plays” that earned Stanford the win. Stanford trailed UNC at the half by six points after the Tar Heels’ electric 7-for-13 (53.8 percent) 3-point shooting to open the game.
“If a game was like five minutes long, we would not be sitting up here and be in a good mood. If the game was even ten minutes long, we’d probably not be excited,” VanDerveer said. “But in 40 minutes, our team really showed great resilience, figured out things that were working, worked really hard together and beat an excellent UNC team.”
After junior point guard Amber Orrange scored the first basket of the game on Stanford’s opening possession, the Cardinal went cold for the next five minutes of play, allowing the Tar Heels to take an early 7-2 lead. UNC knocked down five consecutive 3-pointers to push the lead to 22-9 with 12:47 remaining in the first half.
The Tar Heels dominated the Cardinal in the paint in the opening half of play, limiting Ogwumike to just four points. The first half boiled down to a shooting competition as both teams scored under 10 points in the paint. Orrange held up the Cardinal offense in the first half with 12 points, finishing the game with 14 points and four assists.
“I think our team did a really good job of not being discouraged,” Ogwumike said. “Basketball is a game of runs. They had a run in the beginning of the game, and we got our run right before halftime to give us a chance in the second half.”
While freshman guard Lili Thompson was able to shut down the Tar Heels’ freshman sensation Diamond DeShields, holding her to just four points in the first half, it was freshman Allisha Gray who lit it up with 15 points in the first half, leading the Tar Heels’ charge against the Card.
The second half was all Cardinal for nearly all 20 minutes. Stanford outscored UNC 44-29 in the second half, shooting 58.6 percent and holding UNC to just 37.9 percent. Orrange played stifling defense on Gray and only allowed her four points, while Thompson continued to contain DeShields, allowing her just nine points in the second half for a total of 13 in the game. DeShields had been averaging 18.8 points per game this season.
Stanford made key adjustments at halftime to get the ball to Ogwumike more effectively. Ogwumike finished the game with 20 points and 10 rebounds. Her 93 points in this year’s NCAA Tournament ranks second behind Baylor’s Odyssey Sims, and her 167 career rebounds in the tournament rank tenth in NCAA history.
Redshirt senior Mikaela Ruef provided a resurgent spark in the second half, rallying the crowd behind the players, when she knocked down three 3-pointers. She finished the game with a career-high 17 points and three assists that perfectly set Ogwumike up underneath the basket to score. Her “best game ever putting on a Stanford uniform,” according to VanDerveer, earned her regional MVP honors. Ruef had only knocked down six 3-pointers in her career prior to last night’s game.
“[The defense] was literally standing in the paint, and I was like, well, you know what, I’m either going to turn it over or this is going to go in, so I shot it, and it went in. Then I just kept shooting it,” Ruef said.
After going on a 13-4 run to open up the half, Stanford took its first lead since going up 2-0 to start the game. The lead changed three times late in the second half, as UNC did not allow Stanford to pull away by more than eight points. UNC was able to gain a 63-62 lead with four minutes remaining on a three-pointer from freshman Jessica Washington.
Thompson, who finished the game with 10 points and two steals, scored two of the Card’s next three baskets to put Stanford in the lead for good. Junior guard Bonnie Samuelson iced the game minutes later with two free throws to make it a two-possession game with 21 seconds remaining. Samuelson scored 13 points in the win and her 14 three-pointers were the most by any player in the 2014 NCAA Tournament.
With Ogwumike, Orrange, Ruef, Thompson and Samuelson all scoring in double digits, the Cardinal offense looked unstoppable — especially in the second half — while the defense opened up great opportunities to score. This was the first game in more than a year that five players scored in double digits.
“If we have so many people [scoring], that’s when we play at our best,” Ogwumike said. “When Amber was doing it in the beginning and Mikaela consistently through the second half, and Lili coming up with big plays off the dribble, those are the things that make us a better team.”
While it was the last game at Maples for seniors Ogwumike, Ruef and Sara James, the Cardinal’s journey to the Final Four will continue on Thursday when the team travels to Nashville, Tenn. Stanford will take on the No. 1, undefeated, reigning NCAA champion Connecticut on Sunday at 6 p.m.
Contact Ashley Westhem at awesthem ‘at’ stanford.edu.
To relive the Cardinal’s Elite Eight victory over North Carolina, visit our photo gallery here.