April 8, 2011
So close, so proud
The Stanford women’s basketball team’s hopes for a national championship evaporated in a mere 3 seconds after Texas A&M scored the winning basket to inch ahead 63-62. It appeared the Cardinal had the upper hand after a basket by junior forward Nneka Ogwumike put her team ahead 62-61 with 9 seconds left, but the Aggies managed to get the ball down the court and score.
It was a bitter disappointment for a team that has now gone to four consecutive Final Fours and returned home without a trophy. Hopes were high that this would be the time as the team journeyed to Indianapolis to play the semi-final game on April 3.
The loss was especially difficult for the seniors, especially the two starters, forward Kayla Pedersen and guard Jeanette Pohlen, along with their classmates, forward Ashley Cimino and guard Hannah Donaghe, plus fifth-year guard Melanie Murphy, who played a significant role in the final game.
Nevertheless, the team and individual players can point to a long list of accomplishments as they compiled a 33-3 season record along with numerous records set by the team and individuals. In addition, head coach Tara VanDerveer earned three national coach of the year honors, was named to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and passed her 800-win milestone.
Sure, the outcome might have been different if just a few things had been different. Still, no one can deny that the Aggies played strong defense that led them to dispatch Notre Dame 76-70 in the title game. Thus the Aggies had eliminated two of the No. 1 seeds, Baylor (in the regional) and Stanford, while the Irish had bounced the other two, Tennessee (in the regional) and UConn, leaving two No. 2 seeds to vie for the national championship.
High Hopes at Rally
The day of the semi-final games began with warm sunshine, high hopes and high spirits for a social and rally at the team’s Crowne Plaza Hotel. The crowd included several hundred fans and family members like Erica and Olivia Ogwumike, younger sisters of Nneka and freshman forward Chiney. The younger O sisters were wearing T-shirts that said “Go Sis” on front and the numbers 13 and 30 on the back, for Chiney and Nneka, respectively. They later told a fan that their mother had made the shirts.
More creativity was evident in three children wearing Tree costumes with “Sprig” on one, “Sprout” on another and “Shrub” on the third. They quickly became favorites for photos, posing with the cheerleaders.
The crowd also included Bea Gorton, who was the first women’s basketball coach at Indiana University and who was Tara’s college coach.
As it came closer to the time for the team to leave, the band began playing outside and fans assembled along a red carpet to cheer the players and coaches as they emerged from the hotel. After several songs by the band, it was time to get on the bus, which was led by two Indianapolis motorcycle officers with their sirens wailing.
Before the Stanford-A&M game at Conseco Fieldhouse, I bought a bottle of water and was dismayed when the woman behind the counter took the cap. She said it was a practice that started when people at other events had thrown filled bottles onto the court.
Such a precaution seemed unnecessary in the large, loud but courteous crowd from all four schools. Stanford’s contingent took up about two sections behind the bench, and a few other Cardinal fans were scattered elsewhere.
Band Asks for Help
Just before the game started, the band played the traditional “All Right Now” and, as usual, mixed in some other tunes, including “Luck Be a Lady Tonight.” Nice try, but it didn’t work.
It was a tight game with nine lead changes and four ties. Stanford’s largest lead was 10 points with 15:07 left in the second half, while A&M’s biggest margin was 7 points with 7:54 to go in the first half.
Statistically, Stanford led in rebounds, 39-29; assists, 13-10; blocks, 8-5; steals, 8-7; and points in the paint, 32-22. The Cardinal had 18 fouls to the Aggies’ 19, but the Aggies made all 10 of their free throws while Stanford capitalized on 13 of 19. The Aggies had 12 turnovers, which led to 10 Stanford points, while Stanford had 22 that led to 21 Aggie points.
Nneka led both teams in scoring with 31 points. Jeanette was the only other Cardinal in double figures with 11 points, while Kayla was the game leader with 10 rebounds. Chiney and Mel both fouled out late in the game. Jeanette went to the bench with a sprained ankle after the Aggies’ final basket with 3.3 seconds left. Stanford’s effort to get the ball all the way up the court for a final score was unsuccessful, and so ended the game.
Two days later, the stands were filled with A&M and Notre Dame fans. It appeared that many Stanford fans had surrendered their seats, but a few stuck around, as did some UConn fans.
Aggie, Irish Fans Flock to Indianapolis
Some Aggie fans at my hotel that morning said they had driven up to Indianapolis through stormy weather after their team won. Likewise, it appeared that many Notre Dame fans had joined the crowd after their team’s semi-final win, but it’s only about a three-hour drive from South Bend to Indianapolis. Notre Dame also had a large turnout of green-clad students who came in the chartered buses that were parked outside the arena.
Even though the championship went to Texas A&M, the Stanford women have much to be proud of. One need only watch the press conference with Tara, Nneka, Kayla and Mel to see how gracefully, though sadly, they accepted the loss to the Aggies.
There was no finger-pointing, no blaming. Instead they complimented the Aggies. The players’ biggest regret, as voiced by Kayla, was that they would no longer be playing with and for their teammates. That’s a sentiment shared by their saddened fans, who will miss Kayla, Jeanette, Ashley, Hannah and Mel. They’ve given us many happy memories.