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Stanford answers questions at women's Final Four

TAMPA — The noise came from sometime long ago, a half-cry, half-shriek that covered the years and defined the moment.

There was joy in the sound, and there was relief, and yes, there was a bit of vindication there, too. The clock was still ticking, but already the celebration of the Stanford women had begun on the court. What it sounded like, most of all, was old wounds healing and old disappointments being erased.

Just that like, Stanford was back in the NCAA women's basketball final.

And, yeah, moments such as this were ones that the program had been missing for a decade.

This was the Cardinal's court, and perhaps, it will turn out to be their tournament, too. Considering the way Stanford played Sunday night, considering the ease with which it dispatched Connecticut, the nation's top-rated team, who is going to doubt the Cardinal now?

Stanford was terrific Sunday night. It was a team with all of the answers, and every big shot, every big rebound and every big stop belonged to the Cardinal. Stanford's players were deeper than the Huskies, and tougher, and more relentless.

Time was, none of this would have surprised anyone. Time was, back when Tara Vanderveer's teams were winning two out of three national titles and reaching the Final Four in five out of seven seasons, the world would have been talking about Stanford from the moment the team got off of the plane.

Recent seasons have not been as bountiful, however. Stanford has been good enough to make the Elite Eight three of the past four seasons, but it was no longer one of the name brands of college basketball.

After Sunday night, however, the Cardinal might be.

And if not, check back again after Tuesday, won't you?

There is something likeable, something delightful, in the way the Stanford players attack the game. For one thing, this is the admirable chip on their shoulders, borne from listening to too many people talk about too many other teams. Also, there is the matter of that No. 2 seeding coming into the tournament. Also, there was the 12-point defeat to UConn earlier in the year in which Candice Wiggins says her team was "just killed."

Then, there is the fact that, when the bumps come along in the road, the Stanford players don't seem to blink. Time after time Sunday night, UConn would go on one of its little runs, a happening that usually makes opponents go dry in the mouth, and the Cardinal players would shrug, and someone would launch another 3-pointer through the net.

There was Wiggins, who had gone almost 14 minutes without scoring at one point. But as soon as UConn had rallied within a point, Wiggins made two 3-pointers so fast that you might have thought the second one was a replay of the first.

There was Kayla Pedersen outside and Jayne Appel inside and Jillian Harmon off the bench and JJ Hones in the face of Maya Moore. Oh, it is true that Stanford rotated defenders on Moore, UConn's sensational freshman, including that tree mascot. But in the early going, when Moore struggled the most, it seemed to be Hones who was in her face most of the time.

"Those kids knocked in shots today that didn't even come close in November (when UConn beat Stanford)," Huskies coach Geno Auriemma said. "Stanford played a lot better today. They're a lot better team than they were in November, and they played the game today the way we usually play it. We got done in by our own stuff."

For Auriemma, that doesn't happen much. Get his Huskies close enough to a title, and they usually finish the job. Give him a player such as Moore, and usually, she's going to make sure it happens.

More than shooting, more than rebounding, more than running the floor, Moore's greatest talent always has been her knack for winning games. Moore lost only twice as a high school sophomore, only once as a junior and not at all as a senior. As a college player, she had lost only one time. That's the reason so many people believe Moore will be the best player in women's college basketball in the season to come.

And, yes, perhaps tomorrow does belong to Moore. But Sunday night belonged to Stanford. Moore finished with 20 points, but that included 3-of-11 3-point shooting.

For Moore, this will be the moment that will linger for months. For a moment, she glanced in the direction of the Stanford women as they celebrated. Then, blank-faced, she jogged from the court.

As for Vanderveer, she seemed to look at her players a bit longer. Odds are, she enjoyed it more.

It has been a long time since Vanderveer was on this stage. For a competitor, a decade of waiting can be frustrating.

"You know how sometimes baseball players or basketball players, they see a game in slow motion?" Vanderveer said. "To me, I'm seeing it in slow motion. I'm thoroughly enjoying the journey."

One more win? One more game?

If that happens, the noise may never stop.

Stanford answers questions at women's Final Four 04/06/08 [Last modified: Sunday, April 6, 2008 11:44pm]
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