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A Team to Remember

Inspired by a superstar senior, the Cardinal women took their dream season all the way to the finals.

AP Photo/Elaine Thompson

THAT CLINCHED IT: Pohlen, Wiggins, Pedersen, Appel and Hones celebrate after the Maryland win that sent them to the Final Four.

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By Diane Rogers and Kelli Anderson

An hour before the biggest game of their lives, members of Stanford's women's basketball team huddled at the end of their bench at Tampa's capacious and mostly empty St. Pete Times Forum. Some sat in chairs, others sat on the floor cross-legged or hugging their knees, laughing and telling stories, “like they're at summer camp,” associate head coach Amy Tucker said. “I wouldn't mind if they did some shooting.”

The players did eventually begin a shoot-around, but their lighthearted mood vanished soon after the opening tip-off. Led by Associated Press Player of the Year Candace Parker, the Tennessee Lady Volunteers throttled Stanford 64-48 to win the national championship for the second year in a row and bring to an end an emotional, spirited NCAA tournament drive by the Cardinal women.

Stanford reached the Final Four for the first time since 1997. After raining three-point baskets on top-seeded Connecticut in the national semifinals to win 82-73, the Cardinal was favored by ESPN commentators to beat Tennessee.

The Lady Vols took note. Employing a suffocating pressure defense, Tennessee clamped down Stanford's perimeter game and forced the Cardinal into an uncharacteristic rash of errant passes. Stanford committed 25 turnovers, its highest total of the season and one shy of the record in a national final game.

The contest that had been billed as a collision of the nation's two top players—Stanford's four-time All-American Candice Wiggins and Parker—never materialized. Wiggins was hounded all night, often double-teamed, and finished with 14 points, 13 below her previous tournament average.

Afterward in the Stanford locker room, players sat slumped in chairs, weeping or staring into space. “We should have attacked the pressure instead of hesitating,” said a red-eyed Kayla Pedersen, the freshman forward who two nights earlier had torched Connecticut for 17 points. “Any other day, we would have won.”

At the postgame press conference, Wiggins was able to put into perspective the disappointing last game of a magical season. “I don't think it has hit me yet, and maybe that's why I'm able to speak right now. The moments I've had on this team are like no other moments ever. I know that you can win games, but it doesn't feel as good as playing with people you love to play with. That's why I'm not a wreck right now.”

Stanford began its tournament run at Maples Pavilion, where memories of a second-round loss to 10th-seeded Florida State last season remained fresh. In the first round, the Cardinal dismantled Cleveland State 85-47, with sophomore forward Jayne Appel connecting for a career-high 33 points. In the Card's second-round 88-54 victory over the University of Texas-El Paso, Wiggins exploded for 44 points. The lopsided scores continued in Spokane, Wash., a few days later, where Stanford knocked out No. 6 Pittsburgh, 75-53, in a Sweet Sixteen match-up.

Going into its Elite Eight game on March 31 against Maryland, the top seed in the Spokane regional, the Cardinal was playing with a Sequoia on its shoulder, miffed that the selection committee had overlooked them as a No. 1 seed. Wiggins answered with an electrifying 41-point performance, becoming the first woman to score 40 or more points in two games in the same NCAA tournament. Stanford's 98-87 win propelled the team to its first Final Four in 11 years and set off a delirious celebration at mid-court. Interviewed immediately after the game, an emotional Wiggins tried to compose herself to speak. “I'm sorry, America,” she said between sobs.

Two hours later, parked on a freezing runway while they waited for a charter plane, players whooped for every swish as they watched a replay of the game on bus monitors and devoured cheese and pepperoni pizzas. Between bites, LaDoris Cordell, vice provost for campus relations, was making predictions. “I told [Stanford head coach] Tara [VanDerveer], 'This is a “perfect storm.” All these forces are coming together, and every game you're ratcheting up one level. It's magical.'”

While players and Band members slept, VanDerveer and her coaching staff worked through the night on the flight home, mapping strategies for the semifinals in Tampa. “It's time to get serious,” she kept repeating.

After the Maryland win, history professor Al Camarillo sent Wiggins an e-mail, thanking her for “the four years of great basketball she has given to us fans.” A freshman guard on the UCLA team that won the NCAA title in 1967, Camarillo called the student-athlete with the megawatt smile “an amazing ballplayer, the most complete player I've seen at Stanford in more than 30 years.”

The Cardinal had been percolating all season, playing what VanDerveer, a three-time NCAA Coach of the Year, called a “no joke” schedule. Stanford had its best start since 2002-03, beating nonconference foes Baylor, Utah, Old Dominion, Yale and No. 3 Rutgers. Best of all, on its home court, with 7,172 fans cheering them on in December, the Cardinal ran over Tennessee 73-69, out-rebounding the Lady Vols and forcing 17 turnovers. “That was the game that made me realize how good this year's Stanford women really are,” remarked linguistics professor Tom Wasow, a longtime season-ticket holder. They blasted through the Pac-10 schedule, winning both the regular season title and the conference tournament, and entered the NCAAs riding an 18-game winning streak.

With both 6-foot-4 forwards Appel and Pedersen scoring inside, Wiggins, along with sophomore guards JJ Hones and Rosalyn Gold-Onwude, had more room to maneuver and throw down threes. Junior forward Jillian Harmon provided solid minutes off the bench and a third scoring option in the low post. Also contributing were freshmen Ashley Cimino, Hannah Donaghe and Jeanette Pohlen, junior Morgan Clyburn and senior Cissy Pierce. Sophomores Michelle Harrison and Melanie Murphy, sidelined with knee injuries, hobbled into huddles and shoot-arounds, keeping up a constant chatter.

Still, it was an All the Way with Wiggins campaign. The only four-time All-American in Stanford history and the first three-time Pac-10 Player of the Year had helped her teams to three conference titles. She surpassed Cardinal great Kate Starbird's 2,215-point school record in late January, and in March eclipsed Lisa Leslie's 13-year-old Pac-10 record of 2,414 points to become the conference's all-time leading scorer.

In addition to being “a ridiculously amazing athlete,” Wiggins has become a sister to her roommate of three years, volleyball middle blocker Franci Girard, '08. “I was drawn to Candice mostly because of the bright yellow basketball sneakers she used to wear,” Girard says. “And also because she is so optimistic about life. She is humble, hilarious, goofy, loving, shy at times—just good at life.”

Charmin Smith, '97, MA '00, coached Wiggins at Stanford for three years before she was hired as an assistant coach at Cal this season. “She's got a Hall of Fame coach who's willing to do anything she can to help her get better,” she notes. But what really impressed Smith was the way the team rallied around Wiggins. “She's always been a warrior, and now she's surrounded by people who share that same mentality and toughness, and who want to get it done for her.”

Smith shared her views of Stanford's leading players, beginning with Appel, last year's Pac-10 Freshman of the Year. “The biggest growth in her game is her ability to stay out of foul trouble. You look at that build and her ability to finish, and her toughness, and you're, like, 'Oh, my goodness, she's got two more years.'”

Smith recalls texting a coaching colleague while watching the Stanford-Maryland game and noting that Hones, who lit up Maryland with 23 points, had done similar damage against Cal. “When you double [-team] Jayne, or when you try to have an extra pair of eyes on Candice, there's JJ, and she's gonna make those shots.”

On Gold-Onwude, who, like Hones, returned from a knee injury: “I text Ros after every game: 'You are a rock star.' Ros has no fear,” Smith says.

And of Harmon, back from a stress fracture in her foot, Smith notes: “You don't want to sleep on Jill, you don't want to forget about her, because that's when she'll jump up and get eight rebounds and a couple of put-backs. She's a big part of the heart of that team.”

Pedersen, this season's Pac-10 Freshman of the Year, is “one of the toughest freshmen I've ever seen,” Smith says. The versatile Arizona native, who was recruited by Duke, Notre Dame, USC and Arizona State, can play power forward, center and small forward. Just don't get in her face. “I don't like people pushing me around,” Pedersen said after a flurry of UCLA elbows in a physical game in February. Heading into the Final Four, the ice water in her veins showed no signs of warming. “If you're a No. 2, you want to take down a No. 1.”

Before the first tip-off at the Final Four, Stanford had already scored a huge upset: On April 5, Wiggins won the prestigious Wade Trophy, considered the Heisman of women's basketball. At the time, Wiggins was onstage with the nine other recipients of the State Farm All-America awards. Like virtually everyone else in the packed hotel conference room, she had expected the award to go to Parker for the second straight year. “What?” Wiggins gasped when her name was announced, and everybody in the room stood to applaud. Oklahoma junior Courtney Paris, a fellow State Farm All American, was thrilled for Wiggins. “She deserves it. She works so hard even great basketball players look at her and think, 'I can do a little bit better.' She's your age, but you still look up to her.”

Wiggins's teammates, who willingly had been rousted out of bed to make the 9:45 a.m. presentation, cheered. Gold-Onwude took pictures “like a proud mother,” recalls Hones.

All season, Wiggins had talked about her love for her team, her coach and her school. Moments after the Tennessee loss, the senior addressed her devastated teammates. “I said, 'We have nothing to be sad about, and I would rather be in this locker room than any other place, including out there [on the court where Tennessee was cutting down the nets], because of the experience I've had on this team. That's how much this team is special and how much I love them. I think we should keep our heads up. It hurts. But we had a great opportunity and we'll still remember this.”

KELLI ANDERSON, '84, is a senior writer at Sports Illustrated. DIANE ROGERS is a senior writer for Stanford.

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