Pac-12 Feature: Stanford women ready for NCAA semifinal tonight
Dallas, Texas – On Wednesday, night there was line dancing, cowboy hats and a live bull.
On Thursday morning, the business trip began.
Stanford was the first team to take the floor at American Airlines Arena Thursday for official practice at the 2017 Women’s Final Four.
The Cardinal are in the home stretch of preparations for Friday night’s national semifinal game against South Carolina, turning the page on the elation they felt Sunday morning when they upset top-seeded Notre Dame in the Lexington Regional Final to punch the program’s seventh Final Four appearance since 2008, and the first since 2014.
“We switched gears fast,” said Stanford senior forward Erica McCall. “Coming off the (regional semifinal win) against Texas, we had to emotionally click the switch on and get ready for Notre Dame. We got to celebrate for maybe one day afterwards. But that game against Notre Dame is back behind us now. We’re focused on South Carolina and I think we are ready to go.”
And the Cardinal (32-5) will need to be.
Because while the storyline of a potential matchup between Stanford’s Karlie Samuelson and her younger sister Katie Lou, the star sophomore at Connecticut, is the feel-good story of the weekend, there is a big, big job in front of the Cardinal to get to that opportunity.
South Carolina, the SEC Champion, has size, speed and experience. And head coach Dawn Staley, who was Tara VanDerveer’s point guard on the 1996 Olympic Team, is among the game’s best coaches.
The Gamecocks have been playing the entire NCAA Tournament without senior center Alaina Coates, whose career ended with an ankle injury. But without Coates in the lineup, the Gamecocks have gone to a smaller lineup and more dynamic backcourt play, led by junior transfer Kaela Davis, who was the Most Outstanding Player in the Stockton Regional and has posted three straight 20-point scoring performances.
And South Carolina, making their second trip to the Final Four in the last three years, also has the considerable talents of All-American forward A’ja Wilson inside.
“She’s a great player,” McCall said. “It’s going to be a big battle for us. I’m really excited for the matchup, though. One of the best players in the nation, to get to battle against her. I’m looking forward to that matchup.”
Stanford, meanwhile, has played come-from-behind basketball in three of its four NCAA Tournament games, a run of resilience that extended back to the Pac-12 Tournament, when the Cardinal fell behind Oregon State at the half and stormed back to win the Tournament title.
Cardinal coach Tara VanDerveer said she has enjoyed the challenge of coaching a balanced group – with new stars like Brittany McPhee and Alanna Smith joining seniors such as Karlie Samuelson and McCall as go-to talents - with a team-first attitude.
She joked about needing antacids with this team.
“It’s very challenging,” VanDerveer said. “You know, a lot of it is game-to-game. This has been a great year for our team, and a great growth for our team, growth for me, to really figure out this puzzle.
“We have to figure out during the game, and that might be why sometimes it takes us a while to get going. This is what's available. This is what we're looking for. Bri (Roberson) or Marta (Sniezek) or Alanna (Smith), it's not always going to be the same person….Their confidence and their resilience has been really fun. But we do go kind of with the hot hand.”
It has been 25 years since the Cardinal last won a national championship, in 1992, and VanDerveer has said this team reminds her a lot of that team, which she used to call a “Bucket of Bolts” team.
“This is not a star-studded team,” VanDerveer said. “We have players that are really good at certain things and they’ve got to do those things. But they understand their role, and they embrace their role. The unselfishness, just the team cohesiveness is something that you can't teach and you can't coach. It kind of has happened.”
The Hall of Fame coach has encouraged her players to enjoy this journey, no matter where it leads.
“Honestly, we play whoever they put in our bracket. We're here, we're excited. If it was Mississippi State or Connecticut, you know, whoever it is, we're just going to do the best job we can getting prepared for who we're playing,” VanDerveer said. “Sometimes in the tournament, like, people maybe overthink it or be careful what you wish for. I've just kind of adopted the philosophy, like, just be excited. I told our team, when the bracket comes out…we knew we were going, thank goodness, because we were the second-to-last team announced, I said, 'Just pretend you won the lottery. No matter who you're playing, where you're playing, that's our attitude all the way through it.' I think we've kept it all the way through the tournament.”
Michelle Smith is a contributing writer for pac-12.com. She has covered pro and college sports for espnW, the San Francisco Chronicle and AOL Fanhouse.