- Graham Watson, College Football
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SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- It looked like 4.4 seconds of frenzied madness, a haphazard, anything-goes, coast-to-coast race for one final shot to end the game in regulation.
And Stanford's Jeanette Pohlen delivered, taking an inbounds pass from under her own basket, streaking down the left side of the court and then crossing over for a layup that left her hand with a millisecond remaining on the clock.
Off the backboard. Off the rim. In.
Despite off nights from its stars, Pohlen's buzzer-beater helped top-seeded Stanford survive No. 3 seed Xavier 55-53 to advance to San Antonio for its third consecutive Final Four.
Seems like the perfect off-the-cuff play, right? Not exactly.
Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer leaves little to chance. So after seeing Sunday's regional semifinal between Oklahoma and Notre Dame go to overtime after Sooners guard Danielle Robinson slipped on the final possession of regulation, the Cardinal coaches began scripting their own what-if-we-end-up-in-that-situation scenario.
"We were talking on the way to the bus about how [we'd] give the ball to a fast guard and let them go to the basket," said VanDerveer, crediting associate head coach Amy Tucker for ultimately drawing up the game-winning play. "So that was kind of on our mind not knowing that we would need that play. But our team kind of had that sense."
For Pohlen, time seemed to stand still. But the plan -- come off a screen from guard JJ Hones to take the inbounds pass from Kayla Pedersen, then get another screen from forward Nnemkadi Ogwumike on Xavier guard Special Jennings -- worked perfectly to get Pohlen into the open court. Then it was off to the races.
"It was all kind of a blur, to be honest," Pohlen said. "Everybody was behind me. Once I crossed half court, I think there was someone to my left and [Xavier forward] April [Phillips] was right there, and all I could do was really just go at her. I didn't really have anything else to do. I don't even think anyone from my team was even down there. So it wasn't even like I could dish it to somebody.
"I just had time to go up. It was kind of crazy just kind of weaving in and out. But our assistant coaches were just saying that four seconds is a long time and it did feel like a long time."
Said Xavier's Phillips: "I was just trying to be there, really. She wasn't even supposed to get that far."
Stanford was, though. Unlike fellow No. 1 seeds Tennessee and Nebraska, the Cardinal lived up to their top seed and are into the Final Four for the third straight year. This time, though, Stanford won't meet Connecticut in the national semifinals as in the past two seasons; instead, the Cardinal will face the winner of the Oklahoma-Kentucky matchup in Tuesday's Kansas City Regional final.
Throughout the season, VanDerveer and players have commented on Pohlen's tendency to go a little faster than a point guard should because that's not her natural position. But Monday, the speed was encouraged. In fact, Pohlen was so fast that when she crossed half court she still had time to look up at the clock and see if she had enough time to drive.
"Quite frankly, at the end, the play was so simple," Ogwumike said. "Jeanette came off the screen and I was going to try and screen Special Jennings as she was coming, but [Pohlen] was going so fast that after she passed me I was paralyzed just watching what was going to happen."
Leading up to the shot, Stanford seemed charmed. Pedersen took a short jumper with 27 seconds left that rattled around every part of the rim before falling to tie the score at 53.
Then Xavier had a chance, but a wide-open layup by guard Dee Dee Jernigan with 15 seconds left went off the backboard and rimmed out. Xavier forward Amber Harris rebounded the ball and found Jernigan wide open under the basket again with nine seconds left. But Jernigan missed for a second time.
"I was anxious," Jernigan said. "I was a kid in a candy store. I was too open. I didn't think it was coming out."
But the moment the ball came out for a second time and Stanford secured the rebound and called the timeout with 4.4 seconds remaining, the Cardinal -- who got just eight points in 18 minutes from foul-plagued Jayne Appel and shot 35 percent as a team -- knew this was their game to win.
"Walking off the floor when she missed those two layups, everybody looked at each other and was like, 'That has got to be divine intervention,' ya know?" Pedersen said. "It was meant to be, I guess. I believe that God wants us in the Final Four and we've got to do something with it now."
VanDerveer credits luck -- not divine intervention -- for part of Monday's win.
"I think in this situation we were very lucky," she said. "She missed two point-blank layups, but there was a lot of pressure and the clock was going down. We missed a lot of layups, too. They just didn't happen to be in the last 10 seconds of the game."
Graham Watson covers college football for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jeanette Pohlen went coast-to-coast for a buzzer-beating layup to lead Stanford past Xavier and into its third straight Final Four. Just like the Cardinal coaches scripted it.