Pohlen gets the point for Stanford

Sophomore guard Jeanette Pohlen is averaging 10.9 points and 3.8 assists per game. Kyle Terada/US Presswire

ST. LOUIS -- A year ago, on the biggest night in women's college basketball, Stanford played for a national championship in front of 21,665 fans and a national television audience at the St. Pete Times Forum. Now the Cardinal are back in the Final Four for another shot at Connecticut, the team they upset in the semifinals in Tampa, and possibly the championship that ultimately eluded them on that subsequent Tuesday night against Tennessee.

But getting from that scene in Florida to the one that will unfold Sunday (ESPN, 9 p.m. ET) in front of another crowd of 20,000-plus fans at a massive arena, this time the Scottrade Center, involved putting in a lot of hours in slightly less glamorous settings.

Places like the community center in Jeanette Pohlen's hometown of Brea, Calif., where a visitor last summer would likely have found Pohlen working out on the court. It might have been midday, when one of her brothers would rebound for her on his lunch break. It might have been early in the morning, when her mom would pitch in before her morning run. Or it might have been late at night, when any number of family members sacrificed television reruns to chase down balls long after the evening rush lessened on the courts.

The constant would have been Pohlen, taking to heart the message her coach delivered that to improve on a freshman season in which she was second off the bench but averaged just 4.6 points, she needed to get in great shape and firm up her outside shot.

Just as teammate Jayne Appel remade herself physically after last season, dropping close to 20 pounds in order to prepare for her role as the team's go-to player without Candice Wiggins, Pohlen put in similar hours expanding her game and toning her body.

Even for a team with a lot of familiar faces from a season ago, both Appel and Pohlen represent proof that the process of redefining the team without Wiggins has been a test of both body and spirit.

"Honestly, we would not be here today without Jeanette making the same decision that Jayne made to really maximize her potential," coach Tara VanDerveer said.

Stanford returned four starters and its top two reserves from last year's team, but there was no escaping that losing the Pac-10's all-time leading scorer was going to be a blow. It was with the monumental challenge of replacing Wiggins in mind that Pohlen went to work on her coach's challenge.

"[Wiggins] was all our All-American last year; she was our go-to player," said the 6-foot Pohlen. "And she's such a great player, that I kind of figured it would take more than one person to fill her shoes. She did a lot for us. And I think that was kind of my focus in the offseason, just hoping that I could come and just really contribute as much as possible.

"I really worked on my shot a lot, worked on my speed and quickness, and really tried to get in the best shape I could, in order to be able to run this season, which was the pace we wanted to go at. We wanted a fast pace, we wanted to push the ball and I really hoped to contribute this season."

What she didn't expect was to be the one, literally and figuratively, leading that running game. Even though Pohlen played some point guard in high school, shooting guard or even small forward seemed more likely for her at the college level. But when incumbent point JJ Hones went down with a season-ending knee injury in the second game of the season, the wheels of change began to turn for the Cardinal, albeit slowly.

In the immediate aftermath of Hones' injury, most of Pohlen's minutes still came at off-guard, with a few scattered stints at point in relief of Rosalyn Gold-Onwude or Melanie Murphy. Pohlen recorded seven assists against Hawaii in late November, at the time a career high, but she averaged just 2.4 assists through the team's first 13 games. But by the time the team made its road swing through Oregon and Oregon State in late January, the coaching staff had begun to feel that the team ran most smoothly when Pohlen had the keys.

"I think it really helped our offensive production, helped our rebounding -- obviously it made us really big," associate coach Amy Tucker said. "But more than anything, I think Jeanette's pace has really helped our team. We're harder to press, and it helps our running. She gets that ball and if people are open, she gives it up."

Listen to VanDerveer, though, and you get the feeling there might still be times when Pohlen's passing decisions occasionally resemble those of a high school point guard playing in the Pac-10. That said, a heck of a lot of so-called natural point guards fell in line behind her 1.73 assist-to-turnover ratio, good for a top-40 ranking nationally.

Hones isn't with the team in St. Louis, having made the best of her injury by seizing a chance to study abroad in Spain, which otherwise might not have fit an athlete's schedule, but Pohlen credited Hones for seamlessly making the transition from starter to temporary coach before she left. Between Hones pointing things out on the bench during breaks in the action and assistant coach Kate Paye, who ranks No. 10 in career assists at Stanford and is a veteran of WNBA backcourts, Pohlen had the right instructors for her Berlitz course.

"Point guard is the most difficult position on the floor, I think, without question," Paye said. "There's a lot of responsibility. You initiate things offensively and defensively; you have to have a complete understanding of the game, a complete understanding of the players on your team and the opponent you're playing against. It's a lot of responsibility. And Jeanette's transformation from last season to this season has just been mind-boggling."

Of course, if Pohlen's play has heads spinning, it's only evidence that turnabout is fair play. Forget about the camera adding 10 pounds. After spending special sessions in the film room with Paye, Pohlen might feel like it adds 10 mistakes.

"We really just talk about making decisions with the basketball, and understanding her teammates and who does what well and when to give the ball to certain people in certain situations," Paye said. "And you know, the thing about Jeanette is she's willing to look at game tape even when she doesn't play well, when she makes mistakes. She's just as willing to get in there and really look at what she did; she's willing to admit when she makes mistakes and makes changes. And that's something that players aren't always willing to do."

Pohlen's smooth transition to point guard has allowed the Cardinal to deploy a lineup with the kind of size and athleticism few, if any, opponents can match. There were growing pains as 6-1 Jillian Harmon adjusted to defending smaller, quicker guards from her spot at shooting guard and 6-4 Kayla Pedersen acclimated to shooting from behind the arc or taking people off the dribble as a small forward. But getting those three on the court at the same time with 6-4 Appel and 6-2 freshman Nnemkadi Ogwumike makes Stanford a big team that not only isn't afraid to get up and down in transition but also thrives on it.

"This is the style we needed to play to be successful," Tucker said. "So [Appel and Pohlen] really just saying, 'Hey, I'm going to go home and get in great shape and come back,' has really helped our team succeed. I think that's really the reason we're here is Jeanette's transformation to the point guard position and Jayne being in great physical shape where she can go longer and play harder than she did last year."

That's how you earn repeat performances on the game's biggest stage.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.