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Michelle Smith: Confident second half powers Cardinal to 14th Final Four

Mar 30, 2021
NCAA Photos

Man, it was not looking good for a while.

Stanford couldn’t hit 3-pointers. Couldn’t score around the rim. Couldn’t find an offensive rhythm with Louisville’s disruptive defense. Couldn’t get the momentum.

The Cardinal went to the locker room down 12 points - its largest deficit of the season - to a Louisville team that was 25-0 this season when leading at the half.

And then, it was like a switch had been flipped.

The confusion was replaced by confidence. The stunned looks replaced by determination. And the offense that has been driven all season from the perimeter turned into something more earthbound and productive.

Stanford outscored Louisville 52-25 in the second half, scored 29 points in the fourth quarter (including a 5-for-5 effort from beyond the 3-point arc) and punched a ticket to the program’s 14th Final Four with a 78-63 win over the second-seeded Cardinals.

Tara VanDerveer’s team (29-2), making its first Final Four appearance since 2017, will take on South Carolina on Friday night in the Alamodome. Interestingly, it was Dawn Staley’s Gamecocks who knocked the Cardinal out of that tournament in the national semifinals.

“It is great to be going back to the Final Four,” said Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer. “It didn’t look like it was going to happen in the first half at all. I didn’t recognize the people in the Stanford jerseys that were out there. We are better than that.

“This team has had to deal with things all season and I challenged our team at halftime. I’m proud of how people stepped up. Louisville is a great team and to beat the by 27 in the second half says a lot about how much people wanted it...My dad always said ‘it’s not the start of the race, but the finish.’”

VanDerveer said her halftime message was direct and simple. 

“Don’t worry about winning. Just compete.”

Sophomore forward Ashten Prechtel’s 16 points off the bench in the second half, along with Lexie Hull’s hustle-and-heart 21-point performance were the catalysts for a big victory snatched from what looked like jaws of defeat after the first 20 minutes.

“It’s a huge deal for us to go to the Final Four, and being down 12 at halftime, I hadn’t really thought about the fact that this could be our last game, but that’s when I started to think about it,” Prechtel said. “I was nervous (in the first half). We didn’t want to go home. Coming out of halftime, there was definitely some urgency to how we were going to play.”

Stanford still trailed by 12 midway through the third quarter before going on a 13-0 run to take its first lead of the game on a jumper by Kiana Williams with 2:23 to go. The Cardinal scored the first 10 points of the fourth quarter to set the table for the win.

Stanford joins Arizona as the Pac-12 makes up half the field in this Final Four, the Wildcats preparing to take on 11-time national champion Connecticut.

After a first-half scare, Stanford won’t take for granted its opportunity to live to play another day.

For Stanford guard Williams, the San Antonio native, Tuesday was not the easiest start by any measure. But it might have turned out to be the most gratifying ending. Williams kneeling on the floor in tears when it was over.

Williams, who finished with 14 points, five assists and four rebounds, was 1 of 11 from the floor in the first half.

“I had to change my mentality,” Williams said in her ESPN postgame interview. “I was forcing things. Tara was on me, the coaches were on me, and my teammates picked me up. I had to change my mentality in the second half.”

VanDerveer pulled Williams aside and told her to be a leader and to “run her team.”

It was as simple, Williams said, as having confidence.

“My team has confidence in me, I had to have it myself. Once I got my first shot to go, things started to go for us,” said WIlliams, who was promptly doused with a bucket full of confetti. “I love this team. I wanted it so bad for them.”

Sophomore Haley Jones finished with 10 critical points and 10 rebounds. Cameron Brink added nine points and four blocks. Fran Belibi added some critical offensive rebounds off the bench.

“I’m so proud of our team for the battle and just how hard we fought and how well we played to go to the Final Four. Sometimes you have to face adversity, but we’ve had adversity all year long and our team stepped up.”