Commentary

Stanford will return a stronger team

Cardinal lost to UConn in Final Four but will be stacked, focused next season

Updated: April 6, 2009, 12:18 PM ET
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

ST. LOUIS -- After a feel-good season in which Stanford overcame the graduation of an all-time legend and survived a season-ending injury to its starting point guard to reach the Final Four, Sunday's 83-64 semifinal loss to Connecticut admittedly played out a little like a horror movie.

The Cardinal played with all of the passion but less than all of the precision that carried them to a sweep of the Pac-10 regular-season and tournament titles and back to the Final Four. They turned the ball over 15 times against the Huskies, including 11 times in the first half. They shot just 42 percent -- 30.1 percent for those not named Jayne Appel -- and couldn't find the range from behind the 3-point arc that helped them upset Connecticut in this round a year ago.

But as the horror genre long ago perfected, the ending left plenty of room for a sequel.

Jayne Appel
Scott Rovak/US PresswireJayne Appel and Stanford never stopped fighting against a better UConn team Sunday.

A year ago, a loss to Stanford in the Final Four revealed cracks in a nearly flawless exterior for Connecticut. Chemistry faltered and post play fell short against the Cardinal, and the Huskies headed home a game shy of playing for the national championship.

They spent the next 12 months focused on making sure neither flaw surfaced this April.

Chemistry and post play were perhaps Stanford's greatest strengths throughout this season and again in Sunday's semifinal, but the basic angle of the script could provide for a distinct sense of deja vu when the college basketball world gathers next year in San Antonio.

The two teams that played in St. Louis may well open next season together at the top of the polls.

"Connecticut's a young team, in a way," Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said. "Take away Renee Montgomery, they've got a lot of young players, too. In order for us to compete with them, we're going to have to really work hard in the offseason in the same way they did."

It's easier to look back on 40 minutes of fresh pain than look ahead to a new season now seven months away, but the Cardinal have reason to turn the page quickly. Even more than a season ago, this is a team with every reason to expect it will be back on this stage.

After it lost the championship game to Tennessee a year ago, Stanford had a foundation with four starters returning that suggested it wouldn't suffer another long Final Four drought. It also had one departure -- Candice Wiggins -- that cast a significant shadow over all the returning talent. So even before incumbent point guard JJ Hones went down with a season-ending injury in November, this was a team with a lot of familiar faces trying out unfamiliar roles of leadership and responsibility.

Doing so took time and some growing pains.

"For the whole season, for our team to be playing in the Final Four with what we've been through, I'm exceedingly proud," VanDerveer said. "I have to pinch myself and say, 'We're in the Final Four.' And I just think that our team will build on this experience and it will set in that, 'Wow, you get here and we want to do better.'"

Stanford will miss Jillian Harmon, the versatile, do-everything wing who enjoyed her most productive season as a senior after playing for New Zealand in last summer's Olympics. She showed that off Sunday night, despite a line that's easy to overlook, crashing the boards and holding her own on the defensive end.

But it's no slight to Harmon to suggest that, like arguably every other player who has ever played for the Cardinal, she's not quite the cornerstone Wiggins was. To that end, points on their own aren't a perfect representation of all that goes into a team, but consider that the Cardinal returned 70 percent of their scoring this season.

Next season they will return 88 percent of their scoring.

And that's just the beginning. Stanford adds 6-foot-3 Joslyn Tinkle from Montana and 6-3 Mikaela Ruef from Ohio, both ranked among the top 20 recruits in the nation by ESPN HoopGurlz. Alongside Appel, Kayla Pedersen, Sarah Boothe and Nnemkadi Ogwumike, that's a lineup that may well break the program's single-season rebounding record set by this season's team.

"We are an extremely young team and we have a couple of great recruits coming in to help us," Pedersen said. "We won our last 20 games coming into St. Louis and we reached the Final Four the last two years. Very few other teams can claim to do that."

The second-half rally in which Stanford trimmed a 31-point deficit to 19 was meaningless in the scheme of this game or this tournament, but meaningful in other ways. This team had its flaws. It will be better next season with Hones running the show and Jeanette Pohlen free to look for her shot more regularly and run the show as much as needed. It will be better if Lindy La Rocque's promising outside shot develops into more of a weapon and Pedersen somehow finds yet another way to expand one of the most versatile games in the country.

It will still have Appel, which in and of itself may be good for at least a regional final.

But in both the players on the court and the way the Cardinal continued to play against a Connecticut team that was simply better, they showed they're going to be tough to kill.

"The best thing that happened was the fact that when things were not going our way, our kids really -- they stayed with things really well," VanDerveer said. "They competed. They weren't sniping at each other. They didn't have excuses when they came to the bench. I was so proud of that.

"Now, it was very difficult. We didn't do some of the things that we needed to or we wanted to do. But we've really grown up a lot this season."

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

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.

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