Commentary

Stanford falls short in semifinals

Top-seeded Cardinal leave fourth straight Final Four with a loss

Originally Published: April 3, 2011
By Mechelle Voepel | ESPN.com

INDIANAPOLIS -- They're based on a beautiful campus in the Bay area, attending a school that they say is a 40-year decision, not a four-year one.

Indeed the Stanford experience and degree are extraordinarily valuable and last a lifetime. There's not much reason to ever be "sorry" for Stanford student-athletes.

Yet you can't help but feel that way a little about Cardinal seniors like Kayla Pedersen and Jeanette Pohlen, who for four years kept knocking on the door for an NCAA title … but never did get in. For them, the quest ended with a 63-62 loss to Texas A&M in the national semifinals Sunday.

"You come four years, and you're so close but you can't capitalize on it," Pedersen said. "It feels awful. But you just try not to dwell on that. Of course, you have all the 'what-ifs' going through your mind. All the regrets about certain plays, but you can't let that bring you down."

[+] EnlargeKayla Pedersen
Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesStanfod senior Kayla Pedersen never lost at home at Maples Pavilion. But the Cardinal came up empty in four straight Final Fours in her career.

An admirable sentiment, and Pedersen, known for her even-keeled stoicism, remained totally composed after this game. Really, all the Cardinal players did for the most part, despite their disappointment. Pohlen shed tears, but patiently answered questions as best she could.

Sometimes, though, it's just difficult to find an answer. And to figure out how Stanford has done so much right to have been in 10 Final Fours, but just enough wrong to have won only two of those. And both were a long time ago -- in 1990 and '92.

The Cardinal also made the Final Four in 1991, losing to eventual champion Tennessee. After that 1992 title, if you had suggested that Stanford would go nearly two more decades and not have another national championship, few would have believed you.

But that's what has happened, and it's rather excruciating for Stanford loyalists to recall all the gory details of Final Four misery since.

• 1995: The Cardinal went into the event at Minneapolis with a young, deep team that was a No. 2 seed. But Stanford was no match for UConn in the semifinals, as the Huskies won 87-60 and went on to win the NCAA title.

• 1996: With coach Tara VanDerveer away for the season coaching the U.S. national team in preparation for the Atlanta Olympics, the Cardinal were a No. 1 seed at 29-2 entering the national semifinals against Georgia. The Bulldogs won by 10.

• 1997: No.1 seed Stanford, with a senior class led by Kate Starbird and Jamila Wideman, came into the national semifinals in Cincinnati with just one loss. In one of the most intense games ever played in the NCAA tournament, the Cardinal battled fellow No. 1 seed Old Dominion -- which also had lost just once that season -- to overtime. This despite the fact that Kristin Folkl, the player of the game for Stanford, fouled out. Stanford fell 83-82 in the extra period. In 27 years of covering sports, I've never seen a team more devastated by a loss or a locker room with more tears.

• 2008: After an 11-year absence that included Elite Eight losses in 2004, '05 and '06, Stanford returned to the Final Four as a No. 2 seed and knocked off No. 1 UConn in the semifinals. During the regular season, the Cardinal had defeated Tennessee. But when they met the Lady Vols in the NCAA title game, they fell 64-48.

• 2009: The year after Candice Wiggins graduated, the Cardinal still made it back to the Final Four, again as a No. 2 seed. This time, in a semifinal matchup with UConn, the Huskies got the best of it, 83-64, on their way to completing a perfect season.

[+] EnlargeNneka Ogwumike
AP Photo/Michael ConroyNot even Nneka Ogwumike's 31 points could thwart Texas A&M's rally.

• 2010: This one was particularly agonizing, as No. 1 seed Stanford had fellow No. 1 UConn on the ropes after a very ugly first half, 20-12. The Huskies seemed very rattled … yet they regrouped in the second half and won 53-47. Stanford senior All-American Jayne Appel, bothered by injuries, finished her career going 0-for-12 from the field in that game.

And then there was Sunday night. The No. 1 seed Cardinal had survived the Spokane Regional, with a close victory over North Carolina and a rout of host Gonzaga. Appel was gone, but the Cardinal had a new weapon this season in freshman Chiney Ogwumike, a 6-foot-3 jumping jack to pair with sister Nneka, a junior.

Stanford knew that Texas A&M would be a tough test defensively, yet it looked as if the Cardinal were going to hold off the Aggies. Stanford had a 10-point lead with 6 minutes left. But foul trouble for Chiney Ogwumike hurt a lot. She fouled out at the 4:31 mark on what turned into a three-point play by Tyra White that cut the lead to five.

Stanford fans, watching a replay of that call, won't like it. It will remind them of how Folkl fouled out against Old Dominion's Mery Andrade, a call that will live in infamy in Cardinal lore. Folkl was playing phenomenally well in that game, and her absence definitely made a huge difference in the outcome.

Chiney Ogwumike didn't have a game up to her standards Sunday, with just four points and four rebounds. Even so, not having her for the last 4½ minutes was a critical loss for Stanford, especially considering she made the big play near the end of the game in the win against North Carolina.

It also hurt Stanford that senior guard Melanie Murphy -- who played her most minutes this season, 27, and had eight points -- fouled out while going for a long rebound off a miss. She and Sydney Colson both ran after the ball with 53 seconds left and the Cardinal up by one. But the officials whistled Murphy, taking her out of the game and putting Colson on the line for two critical free throws, both of which she made.

But what hurt Stanford the most was the turnover total -- the Cardinal had a season-high 22. Texas A&M's defense hurt Stanford and also forced the Cardinal into hurting themselves.

"We ran our spread offense the entire second half, and we've never done that before," Pedersen said. "We were up by 10, but once they got the momentum going, got a couple of calls, and their pressure defense was going full-court … it kind of killed us. And we'd burned up our timeouts. Everything at the end just combined, and not in our favor."

Pohlen wasn't only in emotional pain when the game ended, but also was physically hurting. She has been dealing with ankle problems for a while. And on the Aggies' winning drive in which Colson dished off to Tyra White, Pohlen hurt her ankle again and had to be helped off the court. So for the final 3 seconds of her career, she had to look on from the bench as the Cardinal committed one last turnover on an overthrown inbounds pass.

"They drove, kicked and we didn't get back," Pohlen said of the Texas A&M winning drive for a basket. "It shouldn't come down to one play."

Yet so many times in the Final Four, it has come down to a mistake here or there by Stanford, combined with clutch plays by their opponents. Stanford doesn't quite get the record for most consecutive agonies at the Final Four -- LSU went five times in row from 2004-08 without winning a game -- but this was still very hard to take for Stanford.

VanDerveer has been coach for nine of the 10 Final Four appearances; she was gone during the 1995-96 season to guide the national team.Tuesday morning, it was announced VanDerveer would be inducted in the Hall of Fame later this year. But after this loss, she wasn't thinking about herself.

"I feel bad for Kayla and Jeanette," she said. "They wanted this."

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

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