- Michelle Smith, Contributor, espnW.com
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STANFORD, Calif. -- Chiney Ogwumike has carried the Stanford program for the past two years. On Tuesday night at Maples Pavilion, her teammates carried her to the Final Four one more time.
Five Cardinal players scored in double figures in a stomach-churner of a game in which every one of those points mattered as the Cardinal hung on for a 74-65 win over fourth-seeded North Carolina.
Why are the Cardinal headed to Nashville for their sixth Final Four appearance in seven years and 12th overall when instead they could easily have been salving some pretty painful wounds?
"Heart. Heart," Ogwumike said. "People were making plays based on heart. It wasn't the perfectly executed play. It was the play you wanted to make because you played with your heart."
And it can be argued that no one's ticker was bigger than that of Mikaela Rue, the fifth-year senior who said she had her sights set on winning this game from the moment she found out Stanford would be hosting the regional.
Ruef had the game of her career. She finished with a career-high 17 points. She hit three 3-pointers, having hit only two all season coming in. She pulled down nine rebounds, dished three assists. And she was named the regional's most outstanding player.
"It was by far her best game in a Stanford uniform," Cardinal coach Tara VanDerveer said after the game. "Mikaela downplays the work she has put in to do what she did tonight. People have played soft on her because of Chiney's incredible ability, and she was ready for it."
Ruef has always been Stanford's comedian, but on Tuesday she was its savior.
True to form, Ruef entered the postgame news conference wearing her new "Regional Champions" hat backward and off to the side with the piece of net she cut sticking straight up in the air from her forehead.
She joked that she was afraid she was going to "say something stupid" on the dais and then admitted she was thinking about her grandparents.
"They have been coming to watch my games for five years, even in my freshman year when I would sit at the very end of the bench and, as Tara would say, hug the water cooler," Ruef said. "My grandparents are the reason why I started playing basketball to begin with. To be able to play the regional championship, to go to the Final Four in front of them with them cheering is the most amazing feeling ever. I'm just so happy, and happy is not enough, it's more than that."
Ruef was not the only Stanford player feeling the surge of inspiration.
Junior point guard Amber Orrange kept Stanford in the game in the early going, when North Carolina was raining down 3-pointers and taking a 22-9 lead in the first seven minutes. Orrange finished with 14 points, 12 of them in the first half.
Bonnie Samuelson, who doesn't look like she'd be built for this kind of physical game, was as tough as she needed to be, with 13 points, including three big 3-pointers, and four defensive rebounds.
Freshman Lili Thompson had another strong defensive game, this time on North Carolina wing Diamond DeShields -- who finished with 13 points on 5-of-15 shooting playing on a sprained ankle -- and contributed 10 points, including a pair of jumpers in the final three minutes that helped Stanford put the game away.
"It meant so much to our seniors, and on a personal level I felt like I couldn't let them go out without a win here," Thompson said.
At halftime, with Stanford down 36-30, there was no fire and brimstone from Tara VanDerveer. Instead, a little new-age meditation exercise was in order.
"I told them to take a deep breath and calm down and play basketball," VanDerveer said. "I felt like I was teaching a yoga class. I told them, 'You are playing basketball like you are at a fire. There is no fire.'"
But there was plenty of intense heat coming from a talented, confident North Carolina squad that stepped out on to the floor at Maples Pavilion unfazed by a near-sellout crowd or the All-American wearing the other uniform. Allisha Gray opened the game with 15 first-half points before the Cardinal clamped down to limit her to 19 for the game.
But North Carolina was plenty successful at both ends of the floor.
The fourth-seeded Tar Heels had the bodies to put on Ogwumike. Stephanie Mavunga and Xylina McDaniel were more than willing to push around the Stanford star and knock her off her game. But then both Tar Heels got into foul trouble and had to back off.
"I thought the game could have been more physical than it was actually played," North Carolina associate head coach Andrew Calder said. "We wanted to bang [Ogwumike] more down inside. We banged her in the first half and they allowed us to do that, and we wanted to bang her more in the second half."
VanDerveer said she felt her star pressing from the outset, trying too hard to make plays.
"She wasn't herself," VanDerveer said. "She was a little bit like a circuit overloaded -- she might have said it wasn't panic, but it looked like it. She just wanted to do well so badly."
But as the Cardinal began to hit shots from other places -- and Ruef suddenly turned into a 3-point threat -- the Tar Heels were forced to adjust and move a player away from Ogwumike. As the second half started, she looked like she had more room to work -- Mavunga and McDaniel were in foul trouble by then -- and her teammates started getting her the ball. She scored 16 of her 20 points in the second half.
Ogwumike got a halftime pep talk from big sister Nneka in the tunnel before she went back out on to the floor.
"She told me to relax and that 'the game will come to you,'" Chiney Ogwumike said. "She told me to be aggressive and push through."
North Carolina leaves the Bay Area feeling as if this was a game they should have won. DeShields wasn't at 100 percent in the game -- she admitted she was stiff and sore during the warm-ups. And the Tar Heels felt they had an advantage inside before it was negated by foul trouble.
"There were moments where there could have been momentum shifts for us," said DeShields, who talked about a missed free throw here, a missed layup there. "There were a couple of iffy calls and just a lot of stuff that really could have changed the game around. I 'm not going to blame officiating. The game is over with. But I do believe there were some specific moments in time that we could have taken the lead back and it just didn't go our way."
Calder, who brought this young team to the brink of the Final Four while coaching in the stead of Hall of Famer Sylvia Hatchell, who is being treated for leukemia, apologized for falling short and broke down in tears after the game.
"We had the talent to get us to the Final Four and I didn't get us there, and for that I'm sorry," Calder said. "But next year we have a lot of players coming back and a Hall of Fame coach that's going to work with them every day."
There is no looking toward next year for the Cardinal. Instead, they look to the next game, and it's a huge one -- against Connecticut in the national semifinals on Sunday (ESPN, 8:30 p.m. ET).
"We are really excited. This game gets us ready for that," VanDerveer said. "We are battle tested."
And balanced. And maybe Ogwumike doesn't need to carry the Cardinal so much anymore.