The wheels have barely left the tarmac of San Jose International Airport when Stanford women’s basketball head coach Tara VanDerveer and her assistant coaches take their iPads out to watch film, preparing for the No. 2 seed Cardinal’s (33-3) Final Four matchup with No. 1 Connecticut (38-0) before even arriving in Nashville, Tenn.
Soon, All-American senior forward Chiney Ogwumike comes to the front of the plane, where she ends up spending most of the flight going over film and scouting the Huskies with associate coach Amy Tucker.
Stanford is known to be a scouting team that does its homework on its opponents. Upon landing in the Music City, the players barely had enough time to put down their bags at the hotel before they had a quick dinner and dug into even more film. It was VanDerveer’s scouting of Florida State in the round of 32 that prompted her to make the crucial defensive switch to zone, allowing the Cardinal to overcome an early eight-point deficit.
Defensive strategy was also key for the Cardinal in shutting down North Carolina on Tuesday, as they limited the Tar Heels to just 11-of-29 shooting in the second half, securing their lead in the final minutes and also securing a Final Four spot on their home court.
“At the beginning of the year, when the regional sites came out and I saw there was one at Stanford, I was determined to play here [at Maples], to win here, to go to the Final Four,” said redshirt senior Mikaela Ruef, who won the Stanford Regional Most Outstanding Player Award. “This was our goal all year, to win [at home] and go to the Final Four. We have higher goals, but to be able to do it in front of our home crowd [was special].”
All the attention for the next two days will be focused on defeating the top overall seed Huskies and achieving that “higher goal” of the NCAA championship that has remained elusive to VanDerveer since 1992. This is the Cardinal’s sixth appearance in the Final Four in seven years, as they fell short in the Sweet 16 last season.
“I’m so proud of how we battled [against UNC]. You know, we didn’t go anywhere last year, and we had some kind of dips in the road this year that I think really have helped us be who we are,” VanDerveer said. “We’ll be ready. We’re excited. We’re looking forward to playing Connecticut. We’re looking forward to going to Nashville.”
The Huskies are attempting to top off a perfect season with a repeat NCAA title, led by a trio of All-Americans. Sophomore national player of the year contender Breanna Stewart, a 6-foot-4 forward, leads the team in scoring with 19.4 points and 8.1 rebounds per game. Seniors Stephanie Dolson (12.4 points and 9.2 rebounds per game) and Bria Hartley (16.3 points and 3.6 rebounds per game) bring leadership, experience and acute contributions to the post and perimeter, respectively.
Huskies coach Geno Auriemma, who is in his 28th year at the helm of the team, refuses to settle for a win against the Card and instead is setting his sights on the program’s ninth national title. The Huskies have an imposing presence on the low block, with similar size to what Stanford had to contend with against Penn State. All of the scouting and film-watching will come in handy when deciding how to contain Connecticut’s post presence and 50 percent shooting — at least, if Stanford wants to silence the naysayers who have claimed from the start of the season that a Notre Dame-Connecticut matchup in the finals was inevitable.
“If they just wanted a Connecticut-Notre Dame showdown, what did they make us do this for?” VanDerveer said. “If they wanted from the selection show just to have these two teams show up in Nashville, then where’s the excitement? I think everyone last year thought Baylor was going to win. Obviously, they didn’t.”
Stanford freshman guard Lili Thompson did an excellent job of shutting down her opponents’ leading scorers in both tournament wins at Maples, and even knocked down two of the Cardinal’s final three shots to secure the win against UNC. The Cardinal were also led by a career-high night in scoring from Ruef, who finished with 17 points and went 3-for-5 from behind the arc. Junior point guard Amber Orrange and junior guard Bonnie Samuelson also scored in double digits, complementing the 20-point performance from Ogwumike, and making key contributions in the opening half when Ogwumike was held to just 4 points.
The Cardinal fell to the Huskies in the second game of the regular season 76-57. However, with the whole Stanford roster healthy and with five players scoring in double digits last game, anything is possible for this Cardinal team when they play with “heart,” as Ogwumike always emphasizes.
“The fact that we’ve played them already helps us,” VanDerveer said. “Everyone will understand this is what we need to do. They’re a very big team. They’re a very talented team. But our team will be very focused, and the fact that we’ve played them has played to our advantage.”
“We’re looking forward to it,” she added, “and our coaches and team will work really hard to play better than we did last time at Connecticut in the opening game. I think we’re much improved.”
Sunday’s game begins at 6 p.m. and will be televised on ESPN.