Stanford, West Coast powers vow to be better

Updated: November 12, 2003, 11:35 PM ET
Associated Press

STANFORD, Calif. -- Silence fell over Maples Pavilion last March when the Stanford women's basketball team made another early exit from the NCAA Tournament.

That's not supposed to happen to the prominent teams. The Cardinal had been perfect at home all season, but lost to Minnesota in the tournament's second round. And the Pac-10's other postseason representatives didn't fare any better, raising questions about the state of West Coast women's basketball that had been such a strong presence for decades on the national stage.

Coaches promise it will be better this season. But postseason success has to come soon.

"We as a conference didn't play well in the tournament last year, and that downplayed how we did during the season, which was disappointing,'' said Stanford guard Susan Borchardt, formerly Susan King.

"We do need to perform at that time of the year, when everybody is watching. If you don't show it at the end, that's what people see.''

Stanford, the three-time defending conference champion, believed it had the talent last season to reach the Elite Eight, and perhaps even the Final Four, and the talent to erase several years of frustrating finishes.

But the sixth-seeded Golden Gophers ended No. 3-seeded Stanford's 26-game home winning streak, including 15 straight last season. The Cardinal hadn't been beaten in Maples since losing to Tennessee on Dec. 16, 2001.

Victories over big-name teams in the preseason could help boost the fading image of women's hoops on this side of the country, where Arizona and Washington were NCAA Tournament first-round losers last season.

Stanford plays Tennessee on Dec. 14, as well as Boston University and Texas Tech. Arizona plays Virginia in the preseason, while Washington has Notre Dame, Colorado and Texas Tech on its nonconference schedule. UCLA travels to Texas and Purdue, and Arizona State goes to two-time defending NCAA champion Connecticut.

"There's no doubt the preseason can go a long way with nationally being recognized for how strong of a conference we are,'' Washington coach June Daugherty said. "It's important not only to schedule great preseason games but also to have success against those teams, and that's the goal.''

Stanford won NCAA titles in 1990 and again in '92, but hasn't gone deep in the tournament since losing 83-82 in overtime to Old Dominion in the 1997 Final Four. Since then, the Cardinal have two first-round exits, three second-round setbacks and a loss in the third round in 2002.

Tara VanDerveer, entering her 18th season at Stanford, earned her sixth Pac-10 coach of the year award and second straight last season when the Cardinal finished an impressive 27-5 and won the inaugural conference tournament. Then the Cardinal flopped when it mattered.

"I think we've had some great teams in the Pac-10,'' said VanDerveer, a member of the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame, who has the third-highest winning percentage among active Division I women's coaches (.781, 575-161). "I remember USC with Cheryl Miller, and Washington had a great team. My first year I lost to everybody and I haven't forgotten. It all starts with coaching and we have some good coaches, and some great young players in the conference.

"We have people who can play out here. The pressure is on all the teams and coaches not just to play the best teams in the nation but to win, and go farther in the tournament. We have great players in the conference who can compete. We have to do it.''

Stanford still gets the recruits it wants, including those from the opposite coast. Examples are guard Kelley Suminski from Chester, N.J., and Krista Rappahahn from Lebanon, Conn.

"I didn't know anything about West Coast basketball,'' Suminski said. "There was very little of it on TV. I was usually sleeping when it was on. Now I feel lucky to be out West. I love it here. I look around and see a ton of talent. I think we can go up against any conference, and I hope we can prove that this year.''

Letter of intent day is Nov. 12. Stanford already has a verbal commitment from 5-foot-11 guard Candace Wiggins of San Diego, who also had interest from Duke and UCLA.

The Cardinal heritage is impressive -- two NCAA championships, six Final Four appearances, seven trips to the Elite Eight, 10 appearances in the final 16, and 16 consecutive berths in the NCAA Tournament.

"We could lose to anybody if we're not playing well,'' VanDerveer said. "We play against such a variety of defenses, and against coaches who are creative on offense. The wild west is very open-minded. The competition in the conference was great, and I'm proud of last year. We want to build on it.''

Stanford has 11 letterwinners returning with all five starters, including leading scorer Nicole Powell. The senior forward averaged 18.8 points and 9.3 rebounds last season, and played at the Pan American Games. They are committed to having a better season.

"That wasn't the way we wanted to finish,'' Borchardt said. "We worked hard over the summer and used that as motivation.''

Then there's UC Santa Barbara, winner of eight straight Big West Conference titles and a team that has made seven straight trips to the NCAA Tournament.

The Gauchos, who will be one of 16 hosts for the first and second round of the tournament next spring, play a tough preseason that includes home games against Arizona and Illinois and road trips to Florida, Cincinnati and Purdue. They have four starters back.

"When you look at the various ingredients that need to come together to have a really good team -- maybe one of our best teams -- certainly the potential is there,'' 17-year coach Mark French said. "Whether or not we meet that potential will be the interesting question.''

The Pac-10 returns 80 percent of its starters.

"I think the conference is outstanding, but we have to beat people,'' said Southern California coach Chris Gobrecht, whose team's official athletic site talks about the mission to "revive the great legacy and tradition of Women of Troy basketball.''

Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press