–by Adesina O. Koiki
If the saying holds true that there is a kind of beauty in imperfection, Maryland and Stanford hope to create the most “beautiful” Final Four in women’s basketball history.
When the Women’s Final Four gets underway on Sunday in Nashville, those two teams will fight like heck to avoid becoming two of the most famous also-rans in women’s college basketball history. The Terrapins (28-6) take on the undefeated Notre Dame Fighting Irish (36-0) in the first semifinal, followed by the Cardinal (33-3) squaring off against the unblemished Connecticut Huskies (38-0), with most expecting the first match-up of undefeated teams in a championship game in NCAA Tournament history, men or women, on Tuesday.
But in this possibly historic Final Four, Maryland and Stanford don’t plan on being just footnotes in it.
“To some extent, I feel like Maryland and Stanford are the extras at the Miss USA Pageant,” said Maryland head coach Brenda Frese, who won a national championship with the Terps in 2006. “Everybody’s rooting for the other two. Our job is to be able to crash the party.”
Despite Maryland losing to the Fighting Irish in its only meeting of the season, 83-87, in College Park on Jan. 27, Frese drew parallels to her team’s championship run in 2006 and meeting up with a fellow ACC member in college basketball’s biggest stage, and relished the familiarity level these two teams have.
“I love it,” Frese said. “I liken it to ’06, when we got to play North Carolina [in the national semifinals] and Duke [in the championship game] and opponents we played over and over. I think it gives your team a great comfort level so you don’t spend the first 10 or 15 minutes feeling out a team you’ve never played.”
Maryland didn’t necessarily go into the Big Dance with momentum, losing in its first game of the ACC Tournament to North Carolina in the quarterfinals. But the early elimination ended up becoming the spark the team needed to go on its run.
“Well, we had the two weeks to refocus ourselves and get ourselves back on track,” said Alyssa Thomas, the school’s all-time leading scorer, regardless of gender (2,342 points). “And we’re peaking at the right time. We’re playing our best basketball when it matters, and this is what people are going to remember.”
Stanford’s surge towards Nashville started a day after Maryland’s defeat to the Tar Heels in Greensboro, when the Cardinal were usurped by USC in the Pac-12 Tournament semifinals in Seattle, marking the first time since 2006 Stanford did not claim the tournament championship.
“I think the number one thing it did was it kind of just woke us up,” said senior forward Mikaela Ruef, who scored a career-high 17 points in the Stanford Regional final as the second-seeded Cardinal toppled the No. 4 seed Tar Heels. “We were kind of playing in a daze a little bit, and we were getting by in games, but we weren’t playing the way we should be playing. And I think it [the loss] really put a sense of urgency into everyone on the team to improve on what we could improve on in the two weeks we had from the loss to the beginning of the NCAA Tournament.”
Also like Maryland, Stanford has a championship-caliber coach – well, make that a Hall-of-Fame, championship-caliber head coach – in Tara VanDeveer. In her press conference, she seemed to relish the underdog role with her team appearing to many as just a stumbling block for UConn to successfully navigate around on the way to a blockbuster national championship game match-up.
“I think the media has kind of put them [Connecticut and Notre Dame] in the championship game to make it some Cinderella ball; ‘Wouldn’t it be great to see these two undefeated teams?’” VanDerveer said, in somewhat of a defiant tone.
She continued: “But myself and Brenda Frese, us and Maryland, we’re here. If we’re going to be someone’s hors d’oeuvres, we’re not going to get swallowed easily.”
Senior forward Chiney Ogwumike, two-time Pac-12 Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year, has been swallowing up defenders inside all season, as she’s the only person in D-I this season to rank in the NCAA top 10 in scoring (26.4), rebounding (12.1), field-goal percentage (60.4) and double-doubles (26). But VanDerveer pointed to the supporting cast and its evolution as a key role in Stanford’s play all season and to its run to Nashville.
“We cannot be Chiney and the Chin-ettes,” VanDerveer deadpanned. What I’m excited about is the fact that we have five people in double figures [in scoring] through the NCAA Tournament.”
Outside of knocking off the top-seeded Huskies, as well as avenging a 76-57 loss at Connecticut on Nov. 11, VanDerveer makes sure the team remembers what happened when her own team was last a top seed in a tournament format.
“We didn’t win the Pac-12 Tournament, and I remind our team that,” VanDerveer said. “The No. 1 seed didn’t do us any good there. So I’m definitely kind of a little bit of a smack talker in the locker room with our team. I think if our team has had a little bit of a chip on our shoulder, then I’ve carried it, too.”
Whether the chips on both the shoulders of Stanford and Maryland will be enough to carry them to upset wins on Sunday or not, they’re both out to make history – while putting an end to what might be the most historic match-up in NCAA women’s basketball history.
[Cover photo (Maryland bench) courtesy of Greg Fiume/umterps.com]