March 25, 2011
NCAA Tournament Central | Stanford Press Conference Quotes | North Carolina Press Conference Quotes
Last time the Cardinal spent some time in Spokane in March, Candice Wiggins was dribbling off the final seconds of Stanford's NCAA Regional Final win over Maryland with a look of utter joy on her face.
Stanford was breaking into the Final Four for the first time in 11 years and the celebration was on.
Cardinal players jumped around on the court, hugged, dog-piled on the floor. In the holding room before the press conference that followed the game, the Cardinal starters stood together in a circle and held hands.
"It was an incredibly intense and moving," coach Tara VanDerveer remembers.
Stanford seniors Kayla Pedersen and Jeanette Pohlen were just freshmen on that team. They didn't know about droughts of NCAA disappointments. They still don't.
But they remember well the ecstasy of that weekend in Spokane and they want to feel it again on the way to the final Final Four of their careers.
"We are both excited to go back to Spokane," Pedersen said. "It's a really special place for us."
But whether Spokane Arena will be another springboard for the Cardinal depends on how they navigate a regional field that includes one of the nation's venerable programs, a local favorite and one of the tournament's surprise teams.
Top-seeded Stanford (31-2) opens the regional Saturday night against No. 5 seed North Carolina (28-8). The winner will move on to the Elite Eight to face the winner of the early game between No. 11 seed Gonzaga and No. 7 seed Louisville.
Like Stanford, the Tar Heels are one of the most established programs in the women's game. Yet there's little history between the two programs. The Cardinal and North Carolina have played just one in their history, in the 1995 Regional Semifinal in Los Angeles.
North Carolina reached this year's regional semifinal with wins over Fresno State and fourth-seeded Kentucky in the opening weekend.
Tar Heels coach Sylvia Hatchell and VanDerveer have 1,683 coaching wins between them. Hatchell and VanDerveer are two of the five Division I women's head coaches with more than 800 career wins.
VanDerveer knows North Carolina will be well-coached. She also knows that the Tar Heels are speedy, athletic, aggressive on the boards and experienced.
The Tar Heels, who start three seniors with guards Italee Lucas, Cetera DeGraffenreid and forward Jessica Breland, have won six of their last seven games coming into the Sweet 16.
Stanford has won 25 in a row since their two-loss road trip in December, the Cardinal's only two losses of the season.
"North Carolina is a very aggressive team," Pohlen said. "They are very quick and they like to get out and they get a lot of points off turnovers. They have quick hands on the ball."
Stanford will need to continue to pound the boards - the Cardinal have out-rebounded opponents by 30 in the first two NCAA games - and to hit perimeter shots.
VanDerveer is hopeful that freshman guard Toni Kokenis will be able to help her team with her speed on the perimeter. Kokenis sustained a sprained ankle against St. John's Monday night, but could be ready to play by Saturday.
VanDerveer said she is also depending heavily on strong performances off the bench by sophomores Joslyn Tinkle and Mikaela Ruef, both of whom had strong minutes against St. John's.
"Everybody has been talking about our freshmen all year, but I think our sophomores are going to be very important," VanDerveer said.
It will be a team effort that takes Stanford from a familiar place in Spokane to another familiar place - the Final Four.
"We want to go back (to Spokane) and recapture that spirit," VanDerveer said. "We are going to have to play well."
-Michelle Smith, GoStanford.com