March 19, 2011
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STANFORD, Calif. (AP) - Tara VanDerveer loved the atmosphere in jam-packed Maples Pavilion: two Northern California teams in the NCAA tournament and all kinds of story lines for a first-round matchup that very well could have been a rollover.
VanDerveer wouldn't have chosen to open against neighbor UC Davis and retiring coach Sandy Simpson, whom she counts as a friend.
Turns out those NCAA first-timers gave VanDerveer's seasoned Stanford bunch a nice early test - for a half, anyway.
Nnemkadi Ogwumike scored 22 points and grabbed seven rebounds and the top-seeded Cardinal took their initial step toward a fourth straight trip to the Final Four by beating UC Davis 86-59 in the first round Saturday.
"To me, they were not a 16 seed," VanDerveer said. "It worked out geographically. We had the best crowd we've had for a first-round game."
Kayla Pedersen added 11 points and seven assists, Jeanette Pohlen had 11 points and eight assists as the Cardinal (30-2) ran their school-record winning streak at home to 62 games at Maples, where an impressive contingent of Aggies fans was among the crowd of 6,515 after making the two-hour drive.
Paige Mintun scored 17 points and Heidi Heintz 11 in their final collegiate games to lead UC Davis (24-9), which sent its 14th-year coach out in style.
"It's been a long stretch and a fun run for us," Heintz said. "We're all pretty emotional right now. It was an honor to play for Coach."
Stanford will play Monday night against ninth-seeded St. John's (22-10), a 55-50 winner over No. 8 Texas Tech in Saturday's first game. Pedersen, Pac-10 Player of the Year Pohlen and the other seniors will try to wrap up a perfect record on their home floor over their four-year careers.
"This is huge for us," VanDerveer said.
"That's our main goal," guard Lindy La Rocque said. "I want it just as bad because they deserve it. It's an enormous accomplishment for our seniors."
That streak would be plenty special. Yet this is a group that will settle for nothing less than capturing that elusive national title for a program that hasn't won it all since 1992.
It took the Cardinal until well into the first half to get comfortable on offense against UC Davis' unconventional zone defense, which pressures on the perimeter in an effort to disrupt outside shooters and make it tough to pass inside. But once Stanford started hitting from long range, it quickly became a long day for UC Davis.
"I thought prior to this game that Stanford was a national championship-caliber team and Jeanette has a special quality that will lead them to it," Simpson said. "Nothing I saw today dissuaded me from that. They had answers. They made their 3s."
La Rocque matched her career best with 14 points, knocking down four of Stanford's season-high 13 3-pointers, and freshman Toni Kokenis added 11 points with three 3-pointers. Pedersen and Pohlen also each had three 3s in their team's 24th straight win since a pair of December defeats at DePaul and Tennessee.
This game had to be considered an improvement for the Cardinal after Stanford was forced to rally in the second half to beat UCLA 64-55 last Saturday for its fifth straight Pac-10 tournament title.
Screening against the zone to give shooters more time made the difference, VanDerveer said.
"I'm really happy we were able to play a team that challenged us in another way," Ogwumike said.
UC Davis had hoped to make the best possible statement in its NCAA debut after winning the Big West Conference tournament for the first time in program history. The Aggies can walk away knowing they didn't beat themselves.
Stanford shot 55.4 percent to UC Davis' solid 46.8. The Cardinal held a commanding 33-19 edge on the boards, something Simpson knew could pose problems for his smaller team.
Fans cheered "Thank you, Sandy!" in the closing minute for Simpson, who guided the program through its four-year transition to Division I for the start of the 2007-08 season. UC Davis posted back-to-back 20-win seasons and got solid play from Mintun throughout her final season.
She and Simpson hugged on the sideline as she came to the bench in the waning moments.
"Toward the end it got to me a little bit," Simpson said. "The Aggie Pack is chanting and the players coming off the floor, it was a little emotional. I'm blessed to have coached at Davis."
Former Secretary of former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice cheered on the Cardinal and new Stanford football coach David Shaw and his family sat in the front row on one baseline. Former Stanford star and current Minnesota Lynx guard Candice Wiggins also attended the game.
UC Davis matched Stanford in making four of its first six shots, with three 3-pointers. After Kasey Riecks hit a 3 at the 15:50 mark to put UC Davis ahead 11-8, Stanford responded with a 20-5 burst to pull away.
This marked the 13th overall meeting between the schools. They played during the regular season in three of the previous four seasons, with Stanford winning each time.
"I told a lot of people I thought we had a good game plan," Simpson said. "It was whether Stanford would let us execute it."