April 29, 2012

Thanks for the memories, Part 1 of 3

Over a period of more than nine months, starting with Pro-Am play at Kezar Pavilion in San Francisco, fans of Stanford women’s basketball were treated to an array of games and events that made the 2011-12 season a memorable one.

Overall, the team compiled a record of 35-2 and won its 12th consecutive -- and 21st overall -- Pac-12 regular season title by going 18-0 in conference play.

This was its third straight undefeated conference season. Including the three Pac-12 tournament wins that clinched the program's sixth straight tournament crown and its ninth overall, Stanford extended its conference winning streak to a record 78 games.

The team also went 16-0 at Maples Pavilion, thus extending its program record to 79 straight home wins – the longest ongoing home winning streak in the nation. That means that none of this year’s seniors – forwards Nneka Ogwumike and Sarah Boothe and guards Lindy La Rocque and Grace Mashore – and none of last year’s seniors had ever lost at Maples.

For just the second time in program history, Stanford boasted two WBCA Coaches' All-Americans, as Nneka and her sister, sophomore forward Chiney, were named to the 10-player team. Sophomore guard Toni Kokenis was named to the All-Pac-12 Team, while forward Taylor Greenfield and guard Amber Orrange were named Pac-12 All-Freshman Team honorable mention.

Even before amassing all of these team and individual honors, the team’s head coach, Tara VanDerveer, earned a prestigious honor herself. In August she was inducted in the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame. She went on to win her 700th Stanford game against Utah on Feb. 25 and completed the season with 709 wins at Stanford. She has a total of 826 wins for her entire career.

Kezar offers summer preview of freshmen

Fans got their very first taste of what was to come as five of the six incoming freshmen plus junior forward Joslyn Tinkle played together in SF Bay Area Pro-Am competition during the summer. They were joined by a Stanford alum, guard Markisha Coleman, ’07. Freshman guard Alex Green, recovering from a torn ACL in November 2010, couldn’t play but attended the games.

In all, the Stanford women had a 3-2 record at Kezar, with both losses in overtime. Except for the second loss, which she missed, Joslyn was the team’s high scorer with point totals ranging from 28 to 38. She also snared numerous rebounds, blocked shots and served as floor leader for her freshman teammates. They were guards Jasmine Camp and Amber plus forwards Bonnie Samuelson, Erica Payne and Taylor.

Fans meet the team at open practice

Fans had a chance to see most of the team in action at an open practice Oct. 21 in Maples Pavilion. Amber missed the event because she had a cold, and junior Mikaela Ruef mostly stayed on the sidelines because of a sore foot. She wasn’t idle, though. The team’s new sports performance coach, Susan King Borchardt, ’05, worked with her on conditioning.

After some warmups and drills, various combinations of players saw action as they were subbed in and out during scrimmages. In the first scrimmage, Alex beat everyone on two fast breaks despite a brace on her knee.

After the practice, 132 fans packed neighboring Jimmy V’s for dinner and a chance to hear Tara introduce each player. She also introduced her staff, including her new assistant coach, Trina Patterson. Trina replaced Bobbie Kelsey, who left to become head coach at the University of Wisconsin.

“This is a very different team from the past,” Tara said. “It’s going to grow on you.” Those words proved prophetic as the season wore on.

Team notches two wins in exhibition play

The freshmen and their teammates got their first taste of competition when they defeated UC San Diego 106-56 in an exhibition game Nov. 2. The starting lineup featured Nneka, Chiney, Lindy, and sophomore guards Sara James and Toni Kokenis, who was at the point.

By the time the final buzzer sounded, all 14 healthy players had seen action. Mikaela was in uniform but didn’t play because of her foot. Leading the scoring were Chiney with 19, Nneka with 17 and Joslyn with 16. Bonnie led the freshmen with 15 points, thanks to shooting five for seven on 3-pointers.

The next exhibition came at home on Nov. 5, when Vanguard fell 100-54. The starters were Nneka, Lindy, Chiney, Taylor and Amber at the point. By the end of the game, 13 players had seen action. Mikaela was held out again, as was Toni, who had taken a tumble in the UC San Diego game. Both were in uniform, though.

The afternoon was notable for a barrage of 14 3-pointers, thanks to five each by Bonnie and Lindy plus two each by Taylor and Sara.

Games that count start in Texas

After those two exhibitions, the team set off on its first road trip, journeying to the University of Texas for a 72-59 victory on Nov. 11. Nneka missed that game because of an unspecified upper body injury.

Two days later, the team was home to face Gonzaga. Thanks to a 76-61 win, the freshmen took part in a post-game tradition for the first time by joining their teammates in tossing victory balls into the stands. The Zags had proved to be a tough opponent, leading 32-31 at the half, but Nneka and Chiney took over in the second half, scoring all of the team’s 17 points by the 13:36 mark.

During halftime, fans honored the 1991-92 team, which was the last Stanford WBB team to win the national championship. Several support staff members and players were there. Another player, Kate Paye, now an assistant coach, was in the locker room, while another, Bobbie, sent her best wishes from Wisconsin via video.

Tara was honored after the game, when athletic director Bob Bowlsby gave her a trophy and photomontage in honor of her induction into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.

In a post-game gathering behind the bench, associate head coach Amy Tucker introduced Taylor to the fans. Taylor hails from Huxley, Iowa, population 2,000, but it’s only about 9 miles from Ames, home of Iowa State, her parents’ alma mater.

One of her biggest adjustments to playing at Stanford, she said, is that she’s in a forward spot, whereas she was the point guard on her high school team.

All 15 players see action against Old Dominion

When Old Dominion came calling on Nov. 17, Stanford logged a 97-48 victory. As had been the case in the Gonzaga game, all 15 Cardinal players were healthy and available for action. This time, all of them got into the game and contributed in some way, if only for hustle and defense. In retrospect, it was the only game all season that featured everyone.

Lindy led the scoring with a career-high 15 points, all from 3-pointers. Nneka had 14, Chiney 13, Joslyn 12 and Sarah 10. No one played more than 20 minutes, the total logged by Sarah.

Before the game started, Tara was given a plaque honoring her as the national Women’s Coach of the Year. Then Old Dominion got off on the wrong foot by being assessed with a technical foul for failing to submit its starting lineup on time. When Toni made both free throws, the score was 2-0 before the tipoff.

UConn hands Cardinal its only regular season loss

The team was back on the road again, facing UConn on Nov. 21. The game resulted in what was to be Stanford’s only regular season loss as UConn prevailed 68-58. Alex didn’t make the trip because she had suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon during practice the previous week. The injury, which required surgery, kept her out for the rest of the season.

Several dozen fans who couldn’t make the trip gathered for a viewing party at a new (to them) venue, an upstairs room at the Old Pro in downtown Palo Alto.

The team remained in the Eastern Time zone, traveling to Ohio to prepare for its game against Xavier in Cincinnati.

Thus the Stanford contingent was able to enjoy Thanksgiving dinner prepared by Mikaela’s mother at the Ruef family home in Beavercreek, Ohio, a Dayton suburb about 52 miles north of Cincinnati. Fortified with turkey and all the fixings, the team went on to defeat Xavier 80-64 the next day, Nov. 25.

One quick trip home, then on the road to Fresno

Back at Maples, UC Davis fell 93-44 on Nov. 30. Cardinal scoring was led by one member of each class, starting with Nneka, 20; Joslyn, a career-high 19; Chiney, 18; and Bonnie, 15 – thanks to five of the team’s 11 3-pointers.

With Lindy sidelined by what was reported to be a sore foot, Jasmine took her place in the starting lineup along with Nneka, Chiney, Taylor and Toni.

The next road trip was literally down the road as the team took a bus and a number of fans drove to Fresno State for a 93-59 win on Dec. 4. With a starting lineup that featured Nneka, Chiney, Taylor, Toni and Jasmine, the team led from the very first and never looked back.

Initially the game looked like “The Nneka and Chiney Show” with the sisters dominating the boards and scoring. Playing a team-leading 27 minutes, Chiney had 13 points and a career-high 16 rebounds. Nneka played only 18 minutes, but she had a team-high 21 points plus 12 rebounds. Stanford’s superior height allowed it to virtually own the boards, outrebounding the Bulldogs 67-28.

With finals behind them, team takes on Princeton

After a break for studying and finals, the team was back in action at home on Dec. 17, defeating Princeton 85-66. This time the starting lineup featured the Ogwumikes plus Taylor, Jasmine and Lindy.

The visitors kept the game close during the first half, trailing only 39-32 at the break. In the second half, Stanford turned up the offensive and defensive heat to lead by as much as 27 with 2:23 to go.

Afterward, fans heard from one of the Princeton coaches, Milena Flores, a Stanford basketball grad, class of 2000. With this game behind her, “I’m looking forward to cheering for Stanford all the rest of the way,” she said.

Fans also heard from Jasmine, who hails from Atlanta. Playing basketball since she was 4, she had thought she would wind up closer to home, but Stanford “is truly worth the trip. I have a great time here. It’s such a family. I love it,” she said.

Excitement, poignancy in victory over Lady Vols

Three days later, Maples was packed to the rafters and the atmosphere was electric for the Tennessee game. It stayed that way as Stanford won 97-80 led by the exuberance, exhilaration and sheer joy generated by Nneka. The team captain not only scored a career-high 42 points but also hauled in 17 rebounds, dished out three assists and had two steals in her 39 minutes on the floor.

Not to be overlooked, Toni had a career-high 26 points plus four assists, one rebound and one steal in 38 minutes. Adding 14 points, Chiney was the only other Cardinal in double figures.

Despite all this excitement, the evening had its poignant moments as the crowd honored the Lady Vols’ legendary head coach, Pat Summitt. Before the season started, she announced that she had been diagnosed with early-onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type. Later, after the season ended, she stepped down and became head coach emeritus.

To honor her, Stanford fans were given red rally towels emblazoned with an “S” and reading, “We back Pat.” After warmly applauding the Lady Vols when they came on the court, fans greeted Pat’s entrance with a prolonged standing ovation.

Shortly before the game started, fans got their first look at Episode 3 of “The Real Ladies of Maples,” shot mostly by Chiney and focusing on the team’s Thanksgiving dinner at Mikaela’s home.

Mikaela was still on the sidelines because of her foot. She and Alex were joined by Jasmine, who was on crutches because of a foot injury. None of them played for the rest of the season.

Win over Bakersfield ends nonconference play

Stanford wrapped up its nonconference season Dec. 22 with a home 90-48 win over Cal State Bakersfield. Because of injuries, the Roadrunners had only seven players in uniform, and no starter was over 6 feet. Moreover, the team was transitioning to Division I, so meeting an elite team like Stanford presented a formidable challenge.

For their part, Stanford’s starters – the Ogwumikes, Joslyn, Lindy and Toni – got to spend most of the game on the sidelines, sipping Gatorade and cheering teammates who don’t get as much time in the spotlight.

After the game, Nneka paid a visit to fans in Kissick Auditorium, where she received a standing ovation to honor her performance against Tennessee. She was typically modest about her accomplishment. Asked if she realizes the legacy she’s leaving, she said, “I feel like I’m still part of a legacy,” and cited such great predecessors as Jayne Appel, ’10, and Candice Wiggins, ’08. “I’m a part of this program. I just do what I can do to help.”

One way she helps is to mentor the freshmen. “She’s our unpaid assistant,” Amy said, noting that Nneka often explains the coaches’ comments to her new teammates.

Next up: The first Pac-12 season begins.

April 21, 2012

2011-12 team gets real for Tara

When head coach Tara VanDerveer was in Denver for a speaking engagement last spring, she stayed at the Brown Palace Hotel and happened to pass the Pepsi Center. She thought about how great it would be if her Stanford women’s basketball team played there for the 2012 Final Four. Then she told herself, “Get real.”

After all, her team had just lost five players, including Kayla Pedersen and Jeanette Pohlen, to graduation, and six freshmen were coming in – not a promising scenario.

Nevertheless, the team that assembled on campus last fall surpassed her initial expectations and wound up playing in Stanford’s fifth consecutive Final Four at the Pepsi Center in Denver just a few weeks ago. Not only that, but the team stayed in the Brown Palace Hotel. Now she’s hoping for a history-making sixth consecutive Final Four next season.

Tara related her Denver experience by way of introduction to the team’s annual spring banquet April 18 at the Stanford Faculty Club. She then proceeded to thank everyone who had any part in the team’s success, starting with university president John Hennessy and other administrators and continuing with a host of staffers, scholarship sponsors and, of course, the players.

Like the season, which included records such as a 32-game winning streak that was the longest in team history and an ongoing, nation’s best 79-game home winning streak, the banquet itself was a record with some 320 attendees. Some people had to be turned away because the banquet room was filled to capacity. In fact, one table was set up on the patio for several staff members.

DeeDee Zawaydeh, administrative assistant, served as emcee. A large screen was set up at the front of the room, and smaller screens in two corners gave everyone a good view of the proceedings, which were captured by a cameraman in the middle of the room.

Saluting the sophomores

In introducing each player, Tara departed from tradition by starting with the sophomores.

She called guard Sara James a “high energy, unselfish” player. She noted that the human biology major is often the first one at practice.

Fellow guard Toni Kokenis, a starter, was the team’s third-leading scorer and leader in assists. Along with being a good defender, she led the Pac-12 in assist-to-turnover ratio and in steals. Her mother, Marie, was there with her twin brother, Peter.

Forward Chiney Ogwumike is “another tough defender,” Tara said, and “maybe the best offensive rebounder ever to wear a Stanford jersey.” Named to the All-American team along with other honors, she’s “a competitor and a warrior,” the coach said.

Juniors expected to make big contributions

After more thanks to various staffers, the next in line for introductions were the two juniors, starting with forward Mikaela Ruef, who missed most of the year with foot problems. “Get ready for next year,” Tara told her. Tara called her the captain of the rehab team (two freshmen also missed most of the season with injuries) and said, “She will really help” when she returns to action. The coach added that the management, science and engineering major earned all A’s last quarter.

Fellow forward Joslyn Tinkle “had a breakout season,” Tara said. She led the team with 47 blocks and had the highest 3-point and free throw percentage. The sociology and communication major also is “a vocal leader.”

The next round of thanks included strength and conditioning coach Susan Borchardt, a former Stanford player who joined the staff last fall. “The Susan system works,” Tara said, referring to the role Susan has played in the team’s success.

Team’s six pack of freshmen

Then Tara introduced the freshmen, starting with guard Jasmine Camp, “a high-energy player” who missed most of the season with a stress fracture in her foot. Joining Jasmine on the sidelines was guard Alex Green, a good defender who tore her Achilles tendon in November.

Forward Taylor Greenfield is a good 3-point shooter with “great basketball instincts,” Tara said. She was an honorable mention member of the Pac-12 all-freshman team.

Guard Amber Orrange earned the same honor while stepping into the starting point guard spot during the season. “Amber really picked up her defense” and has “amazing acceleration and court sense,” Tara said.

Forward Erica Payne “practices like a senior,” the coach said. Her on-court craftiness earned her a nickname of “the worm,” and she’s developing a perimeter game.

With her quick release, forward Bonnie Samuelson “led the team in 3-pointers made” with 44, Tara said.

“The six-pack is a special freshman class. Now is your time to step up,” Tara said, noting that many players improve the most between their freshman and sophomore seasons.

Coaches merit praise

Tara invited her coaching colleagues to join her in front and praised each one, starting with assistant Trina Patterson, whom she welcomed to her first banquet and whom she lauded for “outstanding teaching skills.” Trina also added four new fans to the booster base thanks to her husband and three sons, who attend most games.

Assistant Kate Paye, another former Stanford player, has been with the team for five years, hence helping to lead it to its five straight Final Fours. Kate has good people skills, Tara said.

Associate head coach Amy Tucker “is really funny,” Tara said, but she also “gets things done.” A good evaluator and developer of talent, she will soon be inducted into the Ohio Basketball Hall of Fame.

“I work at a great university,” Tara said, noting that nothing has changed since her own induction into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame last fall. She appreciates the support that coaches of other Stanford sports give her and the team.

‘Invested seniors’ lead team

“Our team is led by invested seniors,” she said, calling the foursome “a great class.” Lined up behind her were the four seniors’ framed white jerseys.

Forward Sarah Boothe, No. 42, had foot injuries, but she “worked hard to get healthy.” The coach also called the psychology major “a good passer.” Sarah responded by thanking everyone for their support. “We have the best fans,” she said. Joining her at the banquet was one of her brothers, David, who plays football for Hope College in Michigan.

Guard Lindy La Rocque, No. 15, “will always be remembered for her hustle plays.” She also sets great screens and dishes out assists. A science, technology and society major, she was a big help to her fellow guards and “is going to be a great coach,” Tara said.

Lindy thanked her parents for their support, noting that they attended nearly every game during her four years. She got teary-eyed when she talked about her teammates and coaches.

“I’m proud of the culture our team has in caring for each other,” Tara said, introducing guard Grace Mashore, No. 1. “Her maturity and support of other players” have added to the team’s success. Fans will remember fondly the American studies major’s last-minute 3-pointer as the team wrapped up its final home victory of the season. Grace responded, “I’ve been on four really special teams.”

Finally Tara came to forward Nneka Ogwumike, No. 30, who just two days earlier had been the first pick in the WNBA draft, chosen by the Los Angeles Sparks. “This is a Stanford first,” Tara said.

Tara recited a long list of Nneka’s other honors, including the Lowe’s Senior Class Award. Her 2,491 career points at Stanford are second only to Candice Wiggins, ’08. She handled adversity well, developed her game, became more aggressive on the court and served as a great team captain. “I’ve loved being your coach,” Tara told her.

Nneka answered with a thank you and “Nerd City kid. Nerd, Nerd City kid,” the opening lines of the popular rap video that she, her teammates and other Stanford athletes made this year.

She thanked the coaches for their patience and said that when she was a freshman, she never imagined that she’d be in the WNBA. She thanked Susan for her conditioning help and her professors for being patient with the demands of the team’s travel.

Bonnie wins Lizard Lung Award

In keeping with tradition, Chiney and Sarah, past winners of the Lizard Lung Award, presented this year’s award. According to team lore, a player who was being treated for a blister asked what the trainer was using. The trainer said it came from the lungs of a lizard, and the player believed her. Hence the award usually goes to the player deemed most gullible by her teammates.

Since the award often goes to a freshman, the returning players tried not to tell the freshmen about it. Moreover, the criterion was different this year. “In one word, it’s awkward,” Chiney said, announcing Harry Potter fan Bonnie as this year’s honoree. The clincher came when the team was doing its traditional circle of dancing in the tunnel before the Hampton game in Norfolk, Va., and Bonnie did a ballet move on one leg.

“I didn’t know this award existed,” Bonnie said, adding that she was glad she could make the team laugh. Tara reassured her that Jennifer Azzi, ’90, was a winner, too. Jennifer is head coach of the USF women’s basketball team.

Video captures season highlights

Next the audience was treated to video created by Bud Anderson, director of video operations, and Lauren Greif, the team’s video coordinator. It started with the team’s initial workouts last fall and featured each player in game action. It was packed with season highlights, especially the home win over Tennessee and some unbelievable plays by Nneka, and then went on to the tournaments.

It ended with the Final Four semi-final game against eventual champion Baylor and showed the Cardinal getting past the likes of 6’8” Brittney Griner.

Tara ended the evening with another story. This time she said she had seen a Stanford maintenance truck that carried the slogan, “caretakers of our legacy.” Noting that the returning players were to begin workouts the next morning (5:30 a.m. according to some tweets), she challenged them with “Who will be the caretakers of our legacy?”

Next year’s pre-Pac-12 schedule will again be challenging with a number of NCAA tournament teams, including Baylor, she said. Touting the Cardinal’s accomplishments in the NCAA tournament, “Our team really stepped up really big,” she said.

With the return of 11 players, including four starters and the three injured players, plus the addition of two promising recruits, “We are going to have a great team next year,” she concluded.

When Tara talked about maintaining the legacy, she was referring to the responsibility of returning players, especially the seniors, to help freshmen adjust to the Stanford way of playing and conducting oneself on and off the court.

Teammates write tributes to seniors

Program notes that the freshmen, sophomores and juniors wrote to each senior attest to how the four fulfilled that responsibility.

“I don’t think I have ever met anyone with a bigger heart than you,” Sara wrote to Sarah. Erica called her Momma Boothe “because you’re always looking out for the rest of the team.” Joslyn said Sarah is “probably one of the most caring and sincere individuals I have ever met.” Others also spoke about how supportive Sarah has been. “I’ll miss your amazingly wonderful ginormous hugs whenever I’m having a down day,” Toni said.

Time and again, Lindy’s teammates cited her basketball smarts. “Whenever I have a question about basketball, I can always count on you to know the answer,” Taylor said. She and others, like Alex, thanked Lindy for “your willingness to help me with anything.” Mikaela said, “I’m going to miss having you as the coach on the floor next year.”

Teammates praised Grace for her good humor and hard work. “Grace has kept me laughing all year long,” Jasmine said. “Grace is always positive and upbeat and gets our team going every day in practice. She is one of the hardest working … and toughest players on the team,” Amber said. “Grace is a people’s champ,” Chiney said. “I’ll miss you,” Bonnie said. “I know you’ll go on to do great things.”

Nneka, like her classmates, will be greatly missed, her teammates said. “Nneka is one of the nicest people you will ever meet. She has a good heart and was always willing to go out of her way to take care of the freshmen,” Amber said. Joslyn wrote, “My favorite thing about you, Nnek, is not that you’re the best player in the country but that you remain as humble and kind as you are.”

April 8, 2012

Heads held high in the mile-high city

Even though their fifth consecutive trip to the Final Four didn’t turn out as they had hoped, the Stanford women’s basketball team and its coaches had many reasons to be proud of their accomplishments.

For one, head coach Tara VanDerveer and staff came up with an excellent game plan against 6’8” Baylor phenom Brittney Griner and her talented teammates in the semifinal match at the Pepsi Center in Denver on April 1.

Consequently, the Cardinal held Brittney to only 13 points, compared with Stanford senior forward Nneka Ogwumike’s 22. Both All-Americans had nine rebounds to lead their teams in that stat column. As a team, Stanford had 34 rebounds, while Baylor had 42.

Both teams had eight assists. Stanford had eight turnovers, Baylor seven. Stanford had five blocks, Baylor two (both by Brittney). Stanford had three steals, Baylor four.

The final score was 59-47 in Baylor’s favor, a 12-point difference. In the championship game on April 3, Notre Dame lost to Baylor 80-61, a 19-point difference, while allowing Brittney to score 26 points and grab 13 rebounds. Stanford held Baylor to 36.5 percent shooting, while Notre Dame allowed Baylor to shoot 50 percent.

Unfortunately, Stanford shot only 33.3 percent against Baylor, missing many shots that it might ordinarily make. The Cardinal made only two of 17 3-point attempts, or 11.8 percent. Hitting just four more 3’s plus one free throw would have tipped the score in Stanford’s favor.

Fouls also hurt Stanford, which had an uncharacteristic 17, compared with Baylor’s nine. Subsequently, Baylor scored 19 points on free throws, while Stanford scored five – a 14-point disparity.

The score after the first half was 25-23 in Baylor’s favor, while the Lady Bears led Notre Dame 34-28 at the same point. The Stanford-Baylor game was nip-and-tuck for all of the first half and part of the second. The score was tied nine times, while the lead changed eight times.

It wasn’t until about midway through the second half when the game began slipping away. Even then a rally seemed possible despite the fact that All-American sophomore forward Chiney Ogwumike had fouled out at about the 7:30 mark when the score was 46-36 in Baylor’s favor.

Thus one might conclude that Stanford more than held its own against a team that not only won the national championship but also became the first collegiate team – men’s or women’s – to go 40-0 in the process. Stanford finished 35-2, while Notre Dame went 35-4.

Fans gather for reception at hotel

As the NCAA says, the Final Four is more than just three basketball games on two days. There were numerous activities for the players and fans even before the first tipoff.

Since I didn’t arrive in Denver until the evening of March 31, I missed some of those activities, but not the Stanford fan reception the afternoon of April 1 at the historic Brown Palace Hotel, where the team was staying.

The reception was held in a newer part of the hotel across from the old, but a sky bridge connects the two. Pillars of red and white balloons adorned both ends of the glassed-in passageway.

According to a woman at the registration desk, more than 300 fans had pre-registered for the event, and many more were signing in that afternoon.

Fans could enjoy lots of food and help themselves to red Stanford rally towels, team posters, pompons and the now-ubiquitous nerd glasses, emblematic of the popular YouTube rap, “Nerd City Kids,” featuring Nneka and Chiney along with their teammates and other Stanford student athletes.

Guests included parents, siblings and other relatives of the team, along with fans and team alumnae like Kate Starbird, ’97. Kate said she is about to complete her Ph.D. in technology, media and society at the University of Colorado in Boulder. Focusing on how people use social media after a disaster, she wants to teach. She said her field of study is similar to senior guard Lindy La Rocque’s major in science, technology and society.

After the reception, some fans migrated to the original part of the hotel to await the team sendoff, while others went to the Pepsi Center to get their tickets. Those who remained continued to chat.

Some of the players visited with their families. I spoke briefly with freshman forward Bonnie Samuelson, who said she had enjoyed meeting Jayne Appel, ’10. The 6’4” Jayne, a powerful post player now with the WNBA’s San Antonio Silver Stars, put in some practice time with the team at Stanford to help it prepare for Baylor.

I also had a chance to chat with Gregory Green, father of freshman guard Alex Green, who has missed most of the season with an injury. Associate head coach Amy Tucker had called Alex “probably our shyest freshman” when she made the traditional freshman visit to the Fast Break Club after the Washington game Jan. 21. Her dad – far more outgoing and gregarious –said he’s pleased that Alex is at Stanford, and of course he’s proud of her.

Alumnae return to cheer

Illustrious alum, Candice Wiggins, ’08, was there and gave assistant coach Kate Paye a big hug as the latter left the hotel. Candice plays for the WNBA’s defending champion Minnesota Lynx. She said she’s looking forward to the start of training camp later this month.

Still another alum, Vanessa Nygaard, ’98, stepped into the street to stop traffic as an SUV with several Stanford staff members left the hotel garage. Vanessa is alumni coordinator and assistant coach of the girls varsity basketball team at Winward School in Los Angeles

Also present was Charmin Smith, ’97, who is an assistant coach at Cal after serving in the same capacity at Stanford.

Later, at the game, former assistant coach Bobbie Kelsey, ’96, sat in the Stanford section. She’s now head coach at the University of Wisconsin.

A baby wearing a Stanford cheerleader outfit and fast asleep in her stroller was a center of attention at the hotel. Several fans took pictures of her.

Players’ parents hugged each other as they arrived. A woman wearing a Tennessee T-shirt had her picture taken with Tara and Amy as they were leaving.

The hotel features an elegant central atrium surrounded by balconies on each floor and topped by a gleaming stained glass ceiling. On the main floor is an open dining area where guests were enjoying afternoon tea while being serenaded by a classical violinist.

Stanford banners hung from some of the balconies. Another nice touch – linen hand towels in the women’s restrooms.

Band replaces violinist for sendoff

The high-spirited sendoff began as the band, cheerleaders, Dollies and Tree gathered on and in front of a staircase leading up from the atrium. The violinist took a seat as the band began to play, filling the entire hotel with music. Two smiling little girls danced with the Dollies as people snapped pictures.

During the second song, the musicians began marching around the atrium, and by the third song, the team began to arrive. At that point, the festivities moved outside, where the players assembled in front of the team bus and danced to the band’s tunes.

Little girls waving pompons danced in front of the team and Tree, and soon sophomore guard Toni Kokenis and senior guard Grace Mashore were dancing with the Dollies. Just before playing “All Right Now,” the band and crowd chanted, “Just two more games.”

Then it was time for the team to board the bus and head for the Pepsi Center with a police escort.

Full house at the Pepsi Center

The scene at the Pepsi Center was electric as more than 19,000 people packed it to the rafters while watching the first game, Notre Dame vs. UConn. Fans who had been at the sendoff arrived during that game’s halftime.

Stanford fans were concentrated in two sections just to the right of the TV platform, behind what would be the Stanford bench and across from the Notre Dame sections. Other fans sporting Stanford attire were scattered throughout the arena.

Commentators Trey Wingo, Carolyn Peck and Kara Lawson were joined on the TV platform by Robert Griffin III, Baylor’s Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, who is awaiting the NFL draft. Several fans got his autograph before an usher shooed others away.

Stanford fans cheered as the fan cam focused on Condoleezza Rice, a Stanford professor and former U.S. secretary of state. Many of them also were cheering for Notre Dame rather than rival UConn.

Although UConn was behind for most of the second half, it edged closer. Regulation time ended in a 67-67 tie, sending the game into a five-minute overtime. That’s when the Irish took over and won 83-75. Before leaving the floor, the jubilant Notre Dame players went into the stands to high-five their green-clad fans in the front rows.

Stanford-Baylor game begins

Then it was time for Baylor and Stanford in its black road uniforms. About five minutes into the game, the Notre Dame team returned and sat in the section that had been occupied by the Irish band just in front of the Stanford sections. They smiled and waved as Stanford fans cheered them.

Later in the half, when Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw left the floor, she walked in front of the Stanford section, smiled and waved as the fans applauded.

During halftime, a ceremony honored the 10 coaches of the USA women’s teams to the Olympics. Among others, they included the current coach, UConn’s Geno Auriemma, Tara (who was in the locker room with the team) and Tennessee’s Pat Summitt. Pat, who announced earlier in the season that she had been diagnosed with early-onset dementia, Alzheimer’s-type, received a standing ovation as the crowd chanted “USA, USA.”

Even though Stanford trailed during the second half, it pulled to within 7 points, 50-43, at the 2:51 mark, but Baylor surged ahead. With only a few seconds remaining in her final collegiate game, Nneka went to the bench and hugged the coaches and all of her teammates as the crowd cheered. Another senior, forward Sarah Boothe, scored the team’s final basket as the game ended 59-47.

Afterward, the team gathered at the center circle as Nneka talked to them. Returning to the locker room, the players waved to the crowd.

Those semi-final games were played on a day when Denver basked in a sunny 84 degrees, but winter weather returned the next day. With overcast skies, temperatures were in the 30s, but seemed colder because of the wind. Rain and snow flurries came later in the day.

Championship day

The next morning, April 3, my rental car was covered with about 2 inches of snow. Luckily, the hotel had a scraper to lend.

Although the Pepsi Center wasn’t quite to capacity, it seemed that many more Baylor fans had arrived. A large group of what appeared to be Baylor students occupied the Stanford section next to mine. Apparently, many Stanford fans had either left early or stayed in their hotels to watch the game rather than brave the weather.

Shortly before the game began, Ann Meyers Drysdale, president and general manager of the WNBA’S Phoenix Mercury and a vice president for the NBA’s Phoenix Suns, walked up our aisle and said “Yea, Stanford.”

The opening ceremony included the presentation of a giant U.S. flag unfurled by female cadets of the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. The academy’s chorale sang the national anthem. When the game began, the cadets sat in the spaces previously occupied by the Stanford and UConn bands.

Fairly early in the game, Baylor sprinted to a comfortable lead that it never relinquished. One difference in its defense is that it didn’t press Notre Dame as much as it had pressed Stanford.

In keeping with its celebration of the 40th anniversary of the passage of Title IX, the NCAA honored eight women who have been instrumental in its beneficial effects on women’s sports. This 1972 law requires equity for boys and girls in every educational program that receives federal funding.

Those honored during the halftime ceremony included Dr. Bernice Sandler, who wrote the law and who is considered the godmother of Title IX. Others included Drysdale and Tamika Catchings, president of the WNBA Players Association (and an Indiana Fever teammate of Jeanette Pohlen, ’11).

Fans began to leave during the game’s final minutes, when there was no doubt about the outcome, which was 80-61 for Baylor. Once the final buzzer sounded, there was a blizzard of green confetti, a safe choice, since both teams have green as their color.
There was no snow outside, though, and as Stanford fans walked back to their cars, several said that their team played a better game against Baylor.

That was the consensus among fans awaiting their flights from Denver to the Bay Area the sunny next day. Now it’s time to wait for next season.