VanDerveer vs. Azzi: Stanford faces San Francisco with lessons learned from the Pac-12 tournament

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Saturday, March 19 • First Round (Stanford, Calif.)
#12 South Dakota (26-6) vs. #5 Miami (Fla.) (24-8), 3:30 p.m. PT/6:30 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
#13 San Francisco (21-11) at #4 Stanford (24-7), 6 p.m. PT/9 p.m. ET (ESPN2)

STANFORD, Calif. – No. 13 Stanford (24-7) heads into its 30th appearance in the NCAA tournament with an abundance self-confidence despite a surprising loss in the rear view mirror. The team exited the Pac-12 tournament earlier this month after their first game in the competition, a 73-65 defeat at the hands of Washington. It was the earliest departure for the Cardinal since the inception of the tournament. However, head coach Tara VanDerveer is not fazed by her team’s performance in the conference tournament.

“I have confidence in our team and how well we played down the stretch,” said VanDerveer. “We just have to use the fact that we didn’t play well at the Pac-12 tournament to our advantage. And learn from it, and play better this time. Our team got the message. You get one game and you’re done.”

Since the loss, Stanford has been hard at work, preparing for a first round NCAA tournament matchup against the University of San Francisco, a team headed by former Stanford star and Hall of Famer Jennifer Azzi. Even though student-athletes at Stanford were in the midst of final exams, they did not let up on practice intensity this past week.

“For us, this has been a really good week of practice considering that this is finals week,” contends VanDerveer. “I think our team has been working really hard and we’re very prepared and ready for USF.”

The university is now in spring break but for junior guard Lili Thompson, the period is not filled with dread because she cannot go on vacation with friends to get a break from school. She is enjoying spending time with her teammates and getting ready for USF.

“I think everyone finished their finals yesterday and today. That’s a good thing because finals aren’t easy especially here at Stanford. I think that brings more excitement,” said Thompson. “Other people are on spring break, this is kind of our spring break because we’re not in class, we’re not studying, and we’re just spending time with each other. We are a pretty rowdy group.”

With the disappointment in the tournament behind them, VanDerveer, recently named the Pac-12 Coach of the Century, feels confident that the level of competition her team endured during conference season this year has been beneficial for team’s preparation for a run at a national title. The Pac-12 enjoyed the highest RPI of any conference this season and five of its teams are in the NCAA tournament. In addition, Utah and Oregon advanced to the second round of the WNIT tournament this week.

“I feel like our team is very prepared. There are some times that we’ve gone undefeated in the conference and haven’t had close games. I feel like we have experienced everything against Pac-12 competition. We played against as big a player you’re going to play at against Oregon State, we played against as athletic a team as there is against UCLA, we played against an aggressive team with Arizona State, and we played against the best three-point shooting team in the country in Oregon. We look at all the different things we’ve played against, and day in and day out, you never could take a game for granted. You really had to prepare.”

Stanford will rely on the versatile game of junior forward Erica McCall. The member of the All-Pac-12 team and Pac-12 All-Defensive squad is averaging 20.8 points on 57 percent shooting, 8.5 rebounds and 2.8 blocks in the last six games. She has scored in double figures in 15 of the last 16 games and put up more than 20 in three straight. She has also added three-pointers to her arsenal late in the season.

The play of point guard Thompson will also be crucial. The junior has scored 20 or more seven times this season.

In addition to McCall, expected starters for Stanford include junior guard Briana Roberson, junior guard Karlie Samuelson, sophomore guard Brittany McPhee and sophomore forward Kaylee Johnson.

Johnson and McPhee feel that Stanford is ready to perform well against USF.

“We know that USF is a solid team,” said Johnson. “And we know most importantly that this is tournament time. Everyone’s excited, everyone’s prepared. We can’t overlook any team. I’m sure everyone in the nation is thinking that at this point.”

USF knocked off a then-nationally-ranked Brigham Young squad to earn the West Coast Conference tournament championship after defeating the No. 2 and 3 seeds in the competition.

“We know that USF just came off a big tournament win so they’re going to bring a lot of energy,” said McPhee. “So we have to match that and key in on what we need to do defensively.”

For VanDerveer, the game will have extra emotions attached to it as she faces her former player, Olympic gold medalist Azzi, widely regarded as a player that helped put Stanford women’s basketball in the ranks of elite programs in the late 1980s.

“Jennifer put Stanford women’s basketball on the map,” said VanDerveer. “She was to women’s basketball in the Bay Area what Steph Curry is to men’s professional basketball. Her style, her passion, her work ethic.”

Azzi was a four-year starter from 1987-90, helping the team win the national championship in 1990. She was the first Cardinal women’s basketball player to earn several prestigious awards including the Wade Trophy and the Naismith Player of the Year.

“[Jennifer Azzi] means so much to our program, I’m so excited for her,” said VanDerveer. “I just wish I could be cheering for her tomorrow, but I will not be.”

The Stanford campus has hosted 62 NCAA Tournament games since 1982. It has also appeared in the postseason event every year since 1988, a streak of 29 years and 30 years overall.

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