Stanford, North Carolina each look to Final Four
Chiney Ogwumike wrote on Stanford's locker room white board, "3rd round last year."
As if any of the Cardinal needed the reminder of last season's frustrating finish.
That early exit in the NCAA tournament a year ago snapped a streak of five straight Final Fours, and still stings for so many Stanford players and coaches. They all challenged each other to change the culture around the program.
Hall of Fame coach Tara VanDerveer had couches and photos removed from the locker room to instill an improved work-first mentality.
"Last year, when we lost, I had not known anything but the Final Four," fifth-year senior Mikaela Ruef said Monday. "That hurt a lot because I just figured that we're definitely going back to the Final Four."
Now, the second-seeded Cardinal (32-3) are one victory from getting back to women's basketball's biggest stage next week in Nashville, Tenn. Stanford will face No. 4 seed North Carolina (27-9) in Tuesday's regional final on its home court in Maples Pavilion for a Final Four berth.
The young Tar Heels have plenty of their own reasons for wanting to extend the season at least one more game. If North Carolina can reach its first Final Four since 2007, coach Sylvia Hatchell is expected to rejoin them following a season-long fight with leukemia. She recently completed her final round of chemotherapy, is in remission, and doctors have said she should have the strength to travel to the Final Four.
Associate coach Andrew Calder thanked Hatchell first thing for her game plan from afar and thoughtful words after Sunday night's 65-58 victory against top-seeded South Carolina,
"I'm really excited to hear that things are going well for Sylvia," VanDerveer said of her fellow Hall of Fame coach. "It's a really difficult situation. Their team is demonstrating great maturity and resilience."
Here are five things to watch for Tuesday night:
DESHIELDS' HEALTH: If the doctors try to stop beat-up North Carolina freshman Diamond DeShields from playing Tuesday night, she has a plan of her own:
"They're going to basically have to take me down and strap me to a chair to keep me from playing," the Atlantic Coast Conference's top freshman said Monday.
On Sunday, DeShields rolled her right ankle early in the first half, then later re-aggravated a left knee injury. She has been getting treatment for her injuries.
"It's a game-time decision and we're hoping she's going to be out there on the floor," Calder said. "If she's not out there, we're prepared to play without her if that situation arises."
DEFENDING DESHIELDS: If DeShields plays as expected, Stanford has a huge defensive challenge. Cardinal freshman Lili Thompson shut down Penn State star Maggie Lucas in Sunday's regional semifinal win, but the 6-foot-1 Shields provides a different task with her athleticism and ability to score in so many ways.
"A lot of teams this season have tried to take me out of the game and haven't been too successful with it," DeShields said. "If they do take me out of the game offensively, there's always the defensive end I can control."
DeShields scored 19 points against South Carolina, and that was while limping part of the time.
"They're a little bit unpredictable in a dangerous way," VanDerveer said. "They make a lot happen with their athleticism, in transition, on the glass, creating one-on-one shots. We are just opposite teams."
STOPPING OGWUMIKE: Ogwumike is one of the top players in the nation. She will make things happen on both ends, driving the lane and crashing the boards. She doesn't plan for the season to end on her home floor without another Final Four.
In what will mark the end of a six-year run with the Ogwumike sisters at Stanford — big sis Nneka of the Los Angeles Sparks preceded her — she is coming off a 29-point, 15-rebound performance in the semifinals.
"The less she touches the ball the better," UNC freshman forward Stephanie Mavunga said.
Mavunga's teammates are confident they can get it done.
"I love tough challenges, and she's definitely one," 6-2 forward Xylina McDaniel said.
COACH HATCHELL'S HELP: As soon as the Tar Heels learned last week that Hatchell could be back for the Final Four, there was suddenly all the more to play for in the tournament.
Hatchell speaks by phone with Calder about the game plan and she sends encouraging text messages to her players.
"Every time she speaks to us it's a motivator," guard Latifah Coleman said. "The chance to have her in Nashville would be great."
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