The statistics suggested the margin should have been greater. Still, when Stanford took a 10-point lead with 6:01 to play against Texas A&M tonight in Indianapolis, it was hard not to imagine the Cardinal returning to the national championship game for the third time in the last four years.
By the time the buzzer sounded, however, it didn't matter whether you wanted Stanford to face Notre Dame or UConn for the title (I wanted UConn). The Cardinal won't be facing either team, its season ended by a smaller and quicker squad that forced just enough turnovers (22, to be exact) and made just enough buckets (the last on a layup by Tyra White with 3.3 seconds left) to erase that deficit and send Stanford home with a 63-62 defeat.
With seniors Jeanette Pohlen and Kayla Pedersen both struggling offensively against A&M's pressure defense, which helped the Aggies build a 7-point lead midway through the first half, Stanford turned to the only junior member of the Big Three, All-America Nneka Ogwumike, and senior guard Melanie Murphy.
Ogwumike, who is accustomed to leading the Cardinal's offensive charge, was brilliant, finishing with 31 points on 10-for-15 shooting and 7 rebounds. Murphy, who averaged only 7 minutes per game during the regular season, played 27 against the Aggies and was, at times, the best player on the floor.
"She's breaking people down off the dribble and playing back in New York," head coach Tara VanDerveer said of the Brooklyn native before heading into the lockerroom at halftime, with Stanford holding a 27-23 lead. "She's doing a great job."
Murphy, who finished with 8 points and 4 assists, hit a jumper with 2:40 to play to put Stanford ahead 58-52. The Aggies had trimmed the lead to 58-57 when the senior with the slick handle picked up her fifth foul on a controversial call while chasing a loose ball with 53 seconds to play.
Sydney Colson and Ogwumike traded a pair of free throws, giving Stanford a 60-59 lead, before White made a layup with 19 seconds remaining to put the Aggies ahead by one. Stanford called a timeout to set up a play and went right inside to Ogwumike, whose layup gave the Cardinal its final lead of the game. The execution was flawless, but 9 seconds remained on the clock. Colson took the ensuing inbounds pass and drove the length of the floor, feeding White for the game-winning layup.
White led A&M with 18 points, while Danielle Adams added 16 points and 6 rebounds. Stanford outrebounded the Aggies (39-2) and shot 50% from the field. The Aggies shot only 35%, but were a perfect 10-for-10 from the free throw line and had 19 more field goal attempts than the Cardinal, in large part as a result of Stanford's inability to take care of the ball. Pohlen, who had 11 points, led Stanford with 7 turnovers. Murphy had 5.
It was a brutal loss to end a tremendous season. I'll have more bad news tomorrow, including reaction from Tara and the team. Perhaps we can try to put this record-breaking season in perspective, too. Or, we can just look ahead to the football Spring Game.