After the Stanford women’s basketball team was knocked out of the Pac-12 Tournament in the semifinals by fifth-seeded USC, my hopes for Stanford in the NCAA Tournament weren’t all too high. With losses to Washington and USC, along with several close calls down the stretch, I wasn’t confident in the Cardinal’s ability to have a consistent enough offense to keep up with teams having good shooting nights — as was the case in that loss against Washington.
As it stands, it certainly looks as if the Cardinal took that loss to USC to heart and used it as motivation to ride into the NCAA Tournament with renewed determination. When I returned from my weeklong foray into the wilderness over spring break, the Card had rather easily clinched a Sweet 16 berth with victories over double-digit seeds South Dakota and Florida State. To welcome the student body back to campus, the Card stymied third-seeded Penn State to outdo its disappointing performance in last season’s tournament. All seemed to be well.
But when I was in the stands during the first half of the Stanford-UNC Elite Eight matchup two nights ago, I must admit that the doubts flooded back in a big way during the first half.
Absolutely nothing was going right for the Cardinal. Chiney Ogwumike was being closely marked on the inside, leaving Stanford’s offense without its key cog. It led to untimely turnovers and a stagnant offense that couldn’t get any penetration against a big North Carolina defense. Meanwhile, on the other side of the ball, Cardinal defenders were in disarray thanks to the Tar Heels’ perimeter ball movement, and Allisha Gray was seemingly unstoppable from behind the arc. It was the first time I’d ever seen Ogwumike deep into the first half with as many points as she had fouls. When she sat down with two fouls with much of the first half left to go, I was about ready to throw in the towel.
Amber Orrange and company ensured that there would be no towel throwing, responding with 10 points, a steal and an assist in the remainder of the half. Lili Thompson brought the swagger back into the house. Mikaela Ruef fed off of the energy of her last ever game at Maples to spark the Card on both sides of the ball. Bonnie Samuelson resumed her sharpshooting from 3-point range.
And in a sweeping charge, the cavalry stormed back and re-conquered Maples Pavilion in one of the more impressive comebacks I’ve ever seen. It was an exclamation mark on a point that had been evident all season but had truly been put to the test down the stretch: One Chiney Ogwumike does not a Stanford team make. Not only did the team battle back despite its focal point having an uncharacteristically off day, but it did so on the biggest of stages.
That’s why I’m confident that this Stanford team can give big, bad, undefeated UConn one heck of a ride on Sunday in Nashville.
It will go without saying that UConn’s suffocating defense will have the answer — or at least, an answer — for Ogwumike on the inside. It will easily be the best defense that the Card will have faced all season, and as a result, it will really be up to the other four on the floor to step up and have big days, particularly Samuelson on the perimeter, to help Stanford keep pace with the Huskies.
Coming off of the biggest emotional high at Maples Pavilion this season, having cut down the nets after the final home win of their careers and bouncing back from a difficult loss to play great basketball in the tournament, I think that this year’s group of seniors — along with the talented younger corps — has demonstrated the resiliency and spirit that it would need to pull off the upset of the seemingly invincible Huskies. UConn, like the Cardinal, struggled a bit early in its Elite Eight matchup before pulling ahead with a big run. However, Stanford, unlike many other teams in the country, is capable of battling back when faced with tough circumstances under lots of pressure. It’s shown that time and time again.
On paper, the game could be seen as a mismatch. Heck, UConn against anybody this season could probably be seen as a mismatch. But this is the NCAA Tournament, when the unexpected is to be expected and the improbable becomes reality. I bet my friends at The Daily that I would eat a leather shoe if the men’s team made the Final Four, and I almost ended up having to chow down on tanned animal hide — or, at least, came much closer than the nation expected.
I’m not saying that I’ll eat a pair of rain boots if the women’s team beats UConn on Sunday to earn a berth in the title game, because it’s not unfathomable by any means that it could pull off this upset. But the numbers and the season’s results tell me that it would take an upset of huge proportions for any team in the nation to beat the ferocious tide that is the Connecticut Huskies this season.
Stanford, put my doubts to rest again.
Upon learning of Do-Hyoung Park’s wavering trust in her team, Lord VanDerveer replied simply: “I find his lack of faith disturbing.” As Do recovers from being Force-choked, send all well wishes to dpark027 ‘at’ stanford.edu and Tweet at him @dohyoungpark.