Cardinal Seniors Enjoy Fourth Final Four

Pac-12 Content Image

By Michelle Smith

Kayla Pedersen and Jeanette Pohlen can take you through a litany of their Final Four experiences.

The thrill of arriving in sunny Tampa as freshmen, following Candice Wiggins' lead to a win over Connecticut in the national semifinals and then a tough loss to Tennessee in the national title game.

The hazy, fuzzy memories of the 2009 Final Four in St. Louis, a trip that was both disappointing and short as the Cardinal exited after a semifinal loss to Connecticut.

"I don't remember a lot about that game," Pedersen said.

Last year's journey to San Antonio, which included a nail-biting win over Oklahoma in the semifinals, a halftime lead against mighty UConn and then the agony of defeat that followed when the Huskies made a second-half comeback and won another championship.

This year's ending at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis is yet to be written.

The Cardinal seniors, who have accomplished the extraordinary feat of reaching the NCAA Final Four in every year of the college careers, have a very particular final chapter in mind. It involves a trophy and a celebration.

"It's tough making it that far and not coming away with the national championship," said Pohlen, the Pac-10 Player of the Year who was named to the AP All-American team earlier this week. "That is motivating us even more and making us even more excited because we know it's our last chance at it. We've gone this far and we are going to give it all we have."

Stanford joins only Connecticut, Tennessee, LSU and Louisiana Tech as programs who have reached the Final Four in four straight seasons.

"We're in great company," said Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer, who last led Stanford to an NCAA title in 1992. "Connecticut has been there four times as well, but they've had their chance to win it and now we want to go back and do that."

Stanford (33-2) will take on Texas A&M (31-5) in the national semifinals on Sunday night. The second-seeded Aggies are making their first-ever appearance in the Final Four. Big East rivals Connecticut and Notre Dame will meet in the other game, the winners playing for a title on Tuesday night.

Texas A&M reached the national semifinals after defeating No. 1 seed Baylor in Dallas on Tuesday night. The Aggies have set a school record for victories in a season and set a standard for aggressive, tempo-pushing play, particularly in the backcourt.

VanDerveer got started on her scouting work at 4:30 a.m. on Wednesday morning.

"I've got a lot of work to do to understand what makes them tick," VanDerveer said. "They play great defense, they are very balanced in their scoring, they are aggressive and they take care of the ball. We have our work cut out for us."

But the Cardinal have the benefit of being a largely veteran team, with players who have been in this position before. Pedersen, Pohlen and junior forward Nneka Ogwumike have all started multiple Final Four games - 10 between them.

There are a couple of notable exceptions - freshmen Chiney Ogwumike and Toni Kokenis, who play major minutes for Stanford - who will be experiencing the Final Four for the first time.

Chiney Ogwumike, who has averaged a double-double (14.3 points and 10.8 rebounds) in the first four NCAA tournament games of her career, said she is playing to honor the seniors who want to finish with a championship.

Last year she sat in the stands and watched older sister Nneka play.

This is going to be a different experience.

"Any freshman sitting here and hearing their seniors declare their passion for the game like this is just an honor," Chiney Ogwumike said. "To hear them feel so strongly about going to the Final Four and laying it all out for their careers, our underclassmen really want to help them end their senior year right.

"Our senior class knows only Final Fours, and just hearing about their experiences, that is the expectation and I just want to go and make it something very memorable."

The Cardinal's ultimate goal might be two games away, but Pedersen reminds everyone that it's still one-game-at-a-time, no matter how big the stage.

"It's incredible to make to four Final Fours, but at the same time, we're not satisfied with that," Pedersen said. "That determination, that focus we are going to bring this year, and that experience that we bring, that we've lost a bunch of times in the Final Four is really going to motivate us for one more game.

"Texas A&M is in front of us and that's the one we need to get by and we can worry about the rest after that."