Michelle Smith Pac-12 Women’s Basketball Feature: Champs Once Again
2014. “Happy,” by Pharell Wiliams was the song of the year. Or maybe it was “All About That Bass” by Megan Trainor. Princess Kate Middleton announced she was pregnant with Princess Charlotte. Netflix was $7.99 a month. “Blackish” was in its first season. Malala Yousefzai won the Nobel Peace Prize. Ellen took a selfie at the Oscars that broke the internet and Jimmy Fallon took over “The Tonight Show.”
Meanwhile, over the in the Pac-12, Chiney Ogwumike was in her senior season at Stanford, leading her team to another Pac-12 title - the program’s 14th in a row - finishing her career as the Pac-12’s all-time scoring leader (men or women) and on her way to being the No. 1 pick in the WNBA Draft.
Seven long, eventful years later, on a relatively quiet floor at Maples Pavilion, with no cheering, appreciative fans in the stands, the Cardinal’s players and coaches stood together behind a banner that read Pac-12 Champions and took a team photo.
For the first time since 2014, Stanford is the Pac-12 regular-season champion once again.
Considering the Cardinal’s stature in the history of the game, it’s hard to believe that it’s been this long - a testament to the competitive, compelling conference that Tara VanDerveer and her teams have helped to build. Oregon State won the regular-season titles in 2015, 2016 and 2017 as Scott Rueck lifted the Beavers high into ranks of the national elite. Arizona State shared the 2016, a reward for its perennial competitiveness in the league. And the next three years belonged to the Oregon Ducks and the transformative talents of Sabrina Ionescu, Satou Sabally and Ruthy Hebard.
It’s not like Stanford went away. The Cardinal won three Pac-12 Tournament titles during that stretch, and went to a Final Four in 2017.
But seven years, for a program like Stanford’s is a long time. A very long time.
“The drought is over,” said senior Kiana Williams, celebrating after the game.
And it has ended in the most extraordinary of seasons. The COVID-19 pandemic has turned the 2020-21 in a season marked by uncertainty and instability. Stanford has played more games this season than any team in the Pac-12, but hasn’t escaped it by any stretch.
Nine weeks on the road for the Cardinal, forced away from its home floor and campus by local county health department orders. A monumental milestone for VanDerveer, who is holding tight on to her mantle as the winningest coach in the sport’s history. Several weeks at No. 1 before two straight losses caused them to reset and reel off ten-straight victories.
“I am really proud of this team,” VanDerveer said after the game. “This team has battled a lot of adversity and I’m proud of how they’ve stepped up. Winning a championship is not just about one or two players. You need everybody contributing, needing different people in different situations and that’s what we have.”
Junior Lexie Hull said the title is sweeter because of the bonds that the Stanford players have built up in this unusual season.
“To win this Pac-12 championship means more because we had to do more, we had to sacrifice more this season,” Hull said. “It shows me how much we want it and how much we had to give up to achieve it.”