Another Final Four: A Season on the Road with the Stanford Women's Basketball Team

Andy Lyons

An up-close and personal view of the Cardinal's season, all the way to the Final Four in Nashville

At the beginning of the season, Chiney Ogwumike told me that the team’s final goal for the season was a national title. Even though they didn't get there, the ride along the way was still unforgettable.

The Final Four is a huge milestone to reach, but for the Cardinal it’s one that has been reached for six of the past seven years. I was fortunate enough to be the voice of Stanford women’s basketball for KZSU at almost every game en route to this year’s Final Four and was there when the Card failed to win that elusive national title. It might have left a smudge on an otherwise stellar season, and Chiney might not have gotten that championship ring that she deserved, but it was still an incredible season filled with unforgettable experiences.

I started travelling with the team during Pac-12 play and essentially lived in a hotel or at Maples Pavilion for the entirety of winter quarter, but I wouldn't have had it any other way. To be a part of such an amazing program - even just a small part - and to be courtside at the Final Four, is an experience that I will always treasure.

I got to be on the team bus after the highs and after the lows and really learn about the coaching and player dynamics that existed in the team. The first road trip of the season was to the bitter cold and snow of Utah and Colorado with my travel partner Ty (short for Tie-Line, the name of my radio equipment).

The first Pac-12 test of the season was supposedly the following weekend, on the road again, against then-No. 19 ASU. Stanford had a field day with the Sun Devils and silenced anyone who doubted the Cardinal’s place at the top of the conference. I remember VanDerveer being really loose and confident before the game, especially after beating Arizona by 46 points as well. She took the time to chat with me while I set up my radio equipment about how I could join the team for meals and she gave me insight on the team - really making me feel a part of the women’s basketball family.

The next notable matchup was the Battle of the Bay. The general feeling on the Farm was that No. 21 Cal was highly overrated going into the Pac-12 season, but the Bears crawled back into the game in the second half and the Card escaped with only a six point win. The next round at Cal was a bit of a blur for me because of equipment failure (Haas Pavilion is the bane of all KZSU broadcasters' existence) but although the phone line let me down and I had to call the game from my cell phone, the Cardinal did not disappoint, winning its 20th consecutive game of the season.

That streak was soon snapped at the hands of the Huskies in Seattle - and I think hardly anyone realizes what a tough road trip that was for the Card. The team had to contend with a two-hour flight delay on the Thursday night before the game (I flew up at the crack of dawn the day of), then practiced the next morning and then had a two hour drive to Pullman to play Washington State, where it pulled out a narrow win.

Then a flight to Seattle on Saturday, their "off day," another practice, and a long dinner afterward at a friend of the team's got stretched out by a snow delay (yes, it snowed in Seattle). By the 12:30 p.m. tip-off on Sunday, the team was tired and I overheard Ogwumike telling their performance coach that she just felt tired despite getting a full night’s rest.

The press conference after the loss was brutal because I had only ever witnessed one other Stanford loss, which was last season to Cal at home. What was made apparent in this loss, though was the necessity for more players to step up. VanDerveer was adamant on the bus when she said that every player was important and had to be accountable for each and every game.

The Los Angeles road trip was a telling point for the Cardinal, as the team overcame the eighth largest deficit—19 points—in NCAA history to beat USC and then won the Pac-12 title outright with a narrow win over UCLA, proving that Stanford was not invincible in the Pac-12 and that the Pac-12 Tournament would be no walk in the park (and it wasn't). Before heading back to Seattle for the Pac-12 Tournament, Ogwumike saved her best performance for Senior Night, scoring a career-high 37 points. It seemed as if I couldn’t do play-by-play for more than a second without saying "Ogwumike" in every sentence.

Unfortunately, that Cardinal dominance was severely challenged once again in Seattle. After trailing Colorado at halftime, Stanford managed another come-from- behind-win to advance to the semifinals against USC. This time however, the Trojans wouldn’t let the Card take away another winnable game and it was the Cardinal who left the arena with the devastating loss. From where I sat courtside, I could see the frustration from the players and coaches as the Card weren’t able to build more than a six point lead and weren’t able to hold on at the very end.

I packed up my equipment pretty quick and was the first person on the bus because I did not want to be the one to hold the team up in getting back to the hotel. The only thing I heard VanDerveer say when she was on the bus was something along the lines of "They better not send us back to this place," referring to the possibility of having to make a third trip to Seattle for the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

Seattle might have actually been more ideal than where we were actually sent - Ames, Iowa. But Taylor Greenfield had the chance to play in her home state, which she assumed would never happen again so the team was happy that it would be a homecoming for one of them. After Stanford bulldozed through both South Dakota and Florida State, the defensive dominance of Lili Thompson, who emerged as a bona fide star late in the season, was one of the main factors that propelled Stanford into the Final Four. Thompson shut down the leading scorers of Penn State and UNC, while also knocking down key shots on the offensive end.

MIkaela Ruef, though, can rightfully be credited for the Card’s Elite Eight win however, knocking down three of her nine career 3-pointers in the win over UNC and breaking her career high in scoring for the third time that season with 17 points. The seniors were able to leave Maples for the last time with a bang and celebrate in the locker room with country music blaring and fried chicken.

The energy in the room was electric when I walked in to congratulate the team and that same energy transferred over on the trip to Music City. All of the coaches had iPads out and film playing on a loop for the entirety of the flight while Chiney talked with Amy Tucker for a solid two hours straight - all business.

Once in Nashville, the team had three full days before the game to prepare for the Huskies. Knowing that they were the underdogs going up against No. 1 UConn he team decided to take a relaxed approach towards the game and tried to have fun and not get too uptight. And so Stanford finished up its open practice the day before game day with Sara James leading some of the players and VanDerveer in a round of line dancing. The Cardinal came out confident and poised in the first half of play, but reality set in eventually - UConn is just too good to be beaten. Although the Card battled hard inside and gave UConn a scare to start the game, the Huskies’ 50 percent shooting from the field in the second half was too much for the Cardinal, or any last minute heroics of Chiney, to remedy.

When Ogwumike was pulled out of the game for the last time, there was aa collective intake from the fans in the arena— packed with almost every women’s basketball fan in the country—when they realized that that was their farewell to Chiney Ogwumike. One of the greatest athletes in Stanford women’s basketball history was walking off the floor as the Cardinal had missed out on another national title at the hands of UConn. I'll admit I teared up as I concluded my broadcast, reminiscing on the emotions and experiences that travelling with the team had afforded me.

The plane ride home was not filled with disappointment but with renewed drive and determination for the season to come. Chiney told me at the beginning of the year that the window of opportunity to get to the Final Four is always open at Stanford, due to the constant influx of talent and the rubric for success that VanDerveer provides.

While Ogwumike is already in Connecticut preparing for the next chapter in her storied career—the WNBA—Mikaela Ruef is getting ready to leave for the Seattle Storm, Sara James is preparing for nursing school at Columbia and Toni Kokenis is continuing her studies as a co-term in sociology and starting a non-profit, the remainder of the team is about to start spring training and looking ahead to next season.

Next season might be a rebuilding period, but although the title has been elusive, if the past is any indication, Stanford women’s basketball will continue to remain one of the premier programs in the nation... and I will have the pleasure of being there through it all.

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