April 3, 2014

Triumphant farewell before Final Four

In a game filled with nail-biting moments, the Stanford women’s basketball team defeated the University of North Carolina in an Elite Eight game at Maples Pavilion on April 1.

The victory means that the team will be heading to its sixth Final Four in seven years.

Except for the opening basket by junior guard Amber Orrange, the Cardinal trailed throughout the first half as UNC’s physical defenders constantly bottled up senior forward Chiney Ogwumike. About halfway through that half, Stanford trailed 9-22 after UNC had connected on five consecutive 3’s.

When the half ended, the Cardinal had narrowed the gap, but the score still was 30-36 in UNC’s favor, and Chiney had only 4 points. She hadn’t made her first basket until the 14:47 mark.

Cardinal pulls ahead in second half

Stanford finally took a 43-42 lead with 15:32 to go in the second half, thanks to a basket by Chiney. Stanford stayed ahead for the next few minutes. UNC took its final lead, 62-63, at the 3:50 mark, but Stanford’s clutch plays assured the victory.

Chiney finished with 20 points, 10 rebounds for her 26th double-double of the season. She also had one assist, two blocks and one steal in 37 minutes.

She had lots of help, starting with redshirt senior forward Mikaela Ruef, who had a career-high 17 points to go with nine rebounds and three assists in 35 minutes. Nine of Mikaela’s points came from three 3-pointers, the most of her collegiate career. Mikaela made numerous other contributions that weren’t shown on the stat sheet but that were crucial to the win.

Amber finished with 14 points, two rebounds, four assists and one steal in just under 40 minutes. Her fellow starting guard, freshman Lili Thompson, had 10 points, four rebounds, three assists, one block and two steals in 38 minutes.

Coming off the bench and completing the list of players in double figures, junior forward Bonnie Samuelson had 13 points, four rebounds and two assists in 34 minutes.

The Cardinal finished with nine 3’s. Both Mikaela and Bonnie had three, while Amber had two and Lili had one.

Stanford outrebounded UNC 34-32 and had 14 assists to UNC’s 10. Both teams had 13 turnovers.

Packed crowd keeps cheering

As it was in the win over Penn State two days earlier, the atmosphere in packed Maples was electrifying, the din deafening.

When the team fell behind 7-16 with 14 minutes to go in the first half, medically retired senior guard Toni Kokenis instigated and led the “Go! Stanford!” cross-court chant from her seat in the stands behind the scorers’ table. She did so again in the second half when Stanford took its first one-point lead.

Toni had been on the floor with the team until the tipoff, then moved into her seat. She also joined the team for the post-game celebration and net-cutting ritual.

With Stanford ahead 54-46 at the 9:38 mark of the second half, freshman forward Kailee Johnson jumped up and down to incite the crowd.

During the second half, the fan cam focused on a group of students with a sign reading, “Lili 4 Prez,” a reference to her statement that she’d like to become the U.S. president someday. Another sign read, “All the Way with Chiney.”

Some other lighter moments in the game featured a timeout dance-off by the Tree and UNC’s mascot, Rameses, which looks like a big horn sheep with blue horns.

During another timeout, the Tree was held aloft by three cheerleaders.

Ecstatic celebration erupts

When the final buzzer sounded, the screaming bench players rushed onto the court to hug their teammates and jump in elation.

Everyone got hats and gray T-shirts reading “NET WORTHY” above an ‘S’-emblazoned ball going through the basket.

As the celebration continued, the PA system blasted out “Feel the Moment,” the song that went with the video that had preceded starters’ introductions before regular season games. The crowd happily clapped along.

An NCAA official presented the regional championship trophy to head coach Tara VanDerveer, who handed it off to Chiney. She and her fellow seniors – Mikaela, Toni and guard Sara James – knelt in front as the team posed with the trophy.

Tara spoke briefly, thanking the fans for their support, congratulating North Carolina for its game and concluding, “We’re going to Nashville.”

Chiney followed up with “This is the most special place to play basketball.”

When the all-regional team was named, its five members included one each from North Carolina and South Carolina (the No. 1 seed defeated by No. 4 UNC). Amber, Chiney and Mikaela completed the list, with Mikaela deservedly named the regional’s most outstanding player.

The team gathered in a circle at center court, clapping as the band played “All Right Now.”

Down comes the net

Then it was time to cut down the net. Following tradition, each player took her turn climbing the ladder and snipping off a small section. Each was cheered as she did so, but some of the loudest cheers came when Toni ascended the ladder.

After the players came WBB staff members and the coaches. Tara finished the job and tossed the final section to Mikaela.

After her turn at the net, Chiney ran over to the sidelines to hug her older sister Nneka, ’12. In the meantime, Tara was on the other side of the court talking to Stanford president John Hennessy.

After a victory lap around the court, the players ran to their locker room to continue their celebration as a lot of happy fans headed to their cars.

Next up for the 33-3 team is a return matchup against undefeated UConn, the defending national champion, on April 6 in Bridgestone Arena, Nashville. In its second game of the season on Nov. 11, Stanford lost to the Huskies 57-76 on their home court in Storrs, Conn.

The team has come a long way since then.

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