Women's Basketball 20 Years Ago: A Five-Step March to an NCAA Championship

March 18, 2010

By: John Platz

Ask any Division I Athletic Director: in a major sport, the coach you want is one who is able to accomplish significant things by the fifth year of his or her head coaching tenure.

Stanford coaches have proved this axiom time and again.

Two-time College World Series champion baseball coach Mark Marquess, in his fifth season in 1981, took Stanford to its first NCAA Tournament appearance in 14 years. Former football coach Tyrone Willingham led Stanford to a Rose Bowl appearance in his fifth year as head coach. Former men's basketball coach Mike Montgomery guided Stanford to both an NCAA Tournament appearance and an NIT championship within his first five years on the Farm.

But no Stanford coach in a major sport accomplished more by year five than current Stanford women's basketball coach Tara VanDerveer , now in her 24th season on the Farm.

Women's basketball having struggled in the years immediately preceding VanDerveer's arrival in 1985, the new coach embarked on a wholesale program retrofit, starting with the caliber of recruited athlete. With the aid of assistant coaches Amy Tucker and Julie Plank, VanDerveer's talent upgrade began immediately.

Signed as incoming freshmen in 1986-87 were Jennifer Azzi, an all-state point guard from Tennessee, and Katy Steding, an all-state forward from Oregon. Joining them in 1987-88 were Wisconsin high school state player of the year Sonja Henning and Oregon state player of the year Trisha Stevens. Utah state player of the year Julie Zeilstra arrived in 1988-89.

The talent was coming into place. The coaching schemes were sound. Well-run VanDerveer practices honed skills, discipline and competitiveness.And the winning began.

By VanDerveer's fourth year, Stanford had won a first-ever Pac-10 title and had advanced deep into the NCAA Tournament. In that fourth VanDerveer season of 1988-89, the Cardinal got as far as the regional final, losing to Louisiana Tech in the Lady Techsters' home arena in Ruston, La.

Could the Cardinal go even farther in what would be year five of the VanDerveer era, in 1989-90?

With a veteran starting lineup returning--Azzi and Henning at guards, Steding, Stevens and Zeilstra along the frontline--and with the likes of future Pac-10 Freshman of the Year Val Whiting ready to contribute from a deep Cardinal bench, Stanford received a preseason No. 3 national ranking. Through the first weeks of the 1989-90 campaign, the Cardinal did nothing to disappoint the rosy preseason outlook, reeling off 20 straight wins to open the season.

One of those early-season victories was particularly pivotal in forging the team's belief in its national championship potential.

Second-ranked Tennessee came to Maples Pavilion on Friday, December 15, 1989, the fourth game of the season. It was the first time the Pat Summitt's Lady Vols had ever played at Stanford--a scheduling affirmation of Stanford's growing power in women's basketball. One year earlier, in the December 1988 first-ever matchup between the two schools, Tennessee had humbled the Cardinal in Knoxville by a score of 83-60.

In the December 1989 game rematch at Stanford, the Cardinal served notice that it just might surpass the considerable achievements of the 1988-89 Elite Eight Stanford team. The Cardinal delivered a convincing 14-point win over the Lady Vols, before the largest crowd (7,500) at the time ever to attend a women's basketball game at Stanford. Sonja Henning led the way with 23 points, nine assists and six rebounds.Next came January and the 18-game Pac-10 schedule.

Stanford rolled through the January and early February portions of the conference slate undefeated, building a 10-0 Pac-10 record and bringing its overall season record to 20-0. Then came a setback--a narrow 81-78 loss to the University of Washington in Seattle on February 10, 1990.

Was the UW loss a confidence breaker, or was it a blessing in disguise? As many a college basketball team has proved over the years, it can be more advantageous to get that first loss out of the way in January or February, rather than to carry the burden of an undefeated record into March and suffer a first loss in the NCAA Tournament.

With the pressure to maintain an undefeated record no longer an issue, Stanford tore through the rest of the conference schedule, ripping off seven straight wins by margins of 26 points or more in each game. The Cardinal finished the regular season on a roll, with an overall record of 27-1, having scored 100 or more points in eight of its 28 regular season contests.

On to the 1990 Women's Basketball Tournament.

Jennifer Azzi was named the Pac-10 Player of the Year, Wade Trophy Player of the Year and Final Four Most Outstanding Player in Stanford's 1990 National Championship season

The Cardinal, the top seed in the West Region, began tournament play against Hawai'i. Backed by a career-high 35 points from junior Trisha Stevens, Stanford blew away the Rainbows, 106-76.

The win sent the Cardinal into the Sweet 16 round within the West Region, with games to be played at Maples Pavilion. A dominating 114-87 regional semifinal win over Arkansas came next. The 114-point effort by Stanford in that game remains, 20 years later, the NCAA record for points scored in an NCAA regional contest.So, for a second straight year, Stanford found itself in the Elite Eight round--the West Region final, one game away from the Final Four.

The West Region final pitted the Cardinal against the Van Chancellor-coached Ole Miss Lady Rebels. Chancellor, who in future years would become the most successful coach in WNBA history as measured by championships won, had his Mississippi team ready to play. This game would not be the blowout for Stanford that the earlier NCAA Tournament games had been.

But the veteran Cardinal lineup would not be denied. Before still the largest crowd (7,500-plus) ever to witness a women's basketball game at Maples Pavilion, the Cardinal earned its first-ever ticket to the NCAA Final Four, defeating Mississippi 79-65 in the regional final.

Head coach VanDerveer, standing atop the net-cutting ladder following the victory, sliced the last cord in the net-cutting ceremony. With the Stanford Band playing 'All Right Now,' with players and hundreds of Stanford students celebrating around her on the arena floor and with thousands of Maples fans standing and cheering in their seat locations, VanDerveer emphatically whirled the net high above her head several times as flashbulbs popped all over the arena.

It was on to the Final Four in Knoxville, to be played at the 20,000-seat Thompson-Boling Arena at the University of Tennessee. It was a new and untested frontier for this Stanford team--except for one Cardinal player.

Jennifer Azzi grew up in Oak Ridge, TN, making every all star team possible during her youth and high school career there. Tennessee was obviously very comfortable and a familiar territory for Azzi. It was a place where she was used to winning, where she had won multiple championships during her pre-Stanford playing career. And it was, simply, home.

With Azzi ready to seize the moment for herself and her team, Stanford faced Virginia--and All-America guard Dawn Staley--in the national semifinal and came away with a tough nine-point victory. Two days later, before the then-largest crowd ever to watch a women's NCAA Tournament basketball game (20,023), the Cardinal defeated Auburn 88-81 to claim its first-ever NCAA title.

In each game, the same four Stanford starters--Azzi, Sonja Henning, Trisha Stevens and Katy Steding--each scored in double figures, none with more than 21 points in a game, and none with fewer than 12 in a game. In this glorious three-week NCAA championship journey, the Cardinal proved it could win with balance, as well as 92-points-per-game dominance, on the offensive end.

Following the game, the Stanford team celebrated at the home of Azzi's parents--fittingly, with some dancing. The Cardinal (32-1) had won the 1990 'Big Dance' in women's college basketball.

Five years had brought Tara VanDerveer perfectly full circle--from recruiting a Tennessee high school phenom named Azzi to a rebuilding Stanford program in 1985, to returning to Tennessee with a championship-contending Stanford program in 1990 and winning the school's first-ever NCAA women's basketball crown.

A five-year plan, executed to NCAA title perfection.

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