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.
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.