NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- One of Mikaela Ruef’s two favorite memories as a Stanford player came in the Elite Eight four years ago. She was a freshman, spending so much time on the bench that head coach Tara Vanderveer said she was a “water cooler hugger.” When Jeanette Pohlen went coast-to-coast to hit a buzzer-beating layup and the Cardinal beat Xavier and advance to the Final Four, Ruef remembers screaming from the bench, jumping up and running straight to Pohlen.

2014 WOMEN'S BASKETBALL TOURNAMENT
Farnum: UConn caps perfect season with perfect night
Vander Voort: Notre Dame no match for UConn
Farnum: No introduction necessary for the rivalry
Vander Voort: McBride leads Irish to title game
Notes: Notre Dame, UConn to finally meet
Farnum: Player of year Stewart leads UConn to final
Vander Voort: End of Stanford's Ogwumike era
Vander Voort: Notre Dame beats Maryland at own game
Farnum: Young returnees signal bright future for Maryland
Farnum: UConn's odd couple help from different views
Vander Voort: Ruef’s journey from the bench to a star
Farnum: Thomas is one of a kind for Maryland
Vander Voort: Reimer is Notre Dame's answer
Farnum: Maryland's Brown achieves Final Four dream
Vander Voort: Stanford is more than Ogwumike
Watch to watch for in the semifinals from Nashville
Lopresti: Irish, Huskies continue pursuit of perfection
Bigger crowds, blowouts highlight Sweet 16 Gallery
What to know as the Sweet 16 approaches
Five things to take away from first round Gallery
Vander Voort: What to watch as opening round looms
Great expectations: Stewart and UConn lead the way
Back as No. 1 seed, Tennessee looks to end drought
Experienced Sims leads young Baylor squad
2014 DI Women's Basketball Tournament Stats
Official Release  Interactive Bracket  Printable
Women's basketball championship central | Tickets
The second of her favorite memories is much fresher in her mind -- celebrating a win against North Carolina last Tuesday at Stanford, which sent the Cardinal into the Final Four, their sixth in the past seven years. This time, Ruef spent 35 of the 40 minutes on the court, scored a career-high 17 points, and was named the Stanford Regional most outstanding player.

“The way that our team battled, the way that everybody fought that entire game for us to get back to the Final Four, it was such an amazing experience and I think that is now my favorite experience at Stanford so far,” Ruef said.

This season, Ruef stepped into the spotlight at Stanford, starting 35 of 36 games and setting career highs with 7.1 points, 9.4 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game. She had six double-doubles, including a 16-point, 22-rebound performance at Washington on Feb. 9.

Ruef continued to improve her production into the NCAA tournament, especially in the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight. Against Penn State in the regional semifinal, she scored 11 points while grabbing 13 boards. Nine of her 17 against North Carolina came from 3-point shots, when she had made just one shot from long range all season beforehand.

There is more to Ruef’s game than the scoring and rebounding – she has become a strong post passer. She has recorded five assists in four of her past seven games, and has dished out as many as eight in a game this season. She takes care of the ball, recording a 1.8 assist-to-turnover ratio.

That has not always been the case, though.

“She would go into the game and turn the ball over, I don’t know how many times but so fast, that we could only play her one minute,” Vanderveer said of the early part of Ruef’s career.

Coming out of Beavercreek, Ohio, in 2009 as Ohio’s Gatorade high school Player of the Year, Ruef accumulated 19 points in 62 minutes throughout her entire first season. The following year, she saw an increased role but not by much, averaging 2.1 points and 2.9 rebounds per game in 9.8 minutes.

“Coming in as a freshman I was pretty much overwhelmed,” Ruef said. “I wasn’t ready for college basketball, I didn’t know what it was like to work hard.”

The next year, 2011-12, was a year that could have made her career take a turn for the worse. After playing just three games, Ruef was sidelined by a foot injury for 11 months. But she turned it into a positive.

“I think sitting out actually helped me a lot,” Ruef said. “It was tough at the time, but looking back it actually helped me to cherish what I had and to cherish playing basketball because it could be taken away at any minute. I think that really kicked it into gear and made me start working harder.”

Once Ruef finally returned early in her redshirt junior year, one of the first assignments wasn’t easy. Stanford was taking on top-ranked Baylor in Hawaii, and Ruef would have to guard star Brittney Griner. Making the first start of her career, she out-rebounded Griner 12-6 and held her to four first-half points as Stanford pulled off a 71-69 upset.

Ruef started 29 games and appeared in all 36 for the Cardinal that season, finishing with 4.2 points, 6.6 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game. But when the season came to an end, despite having a year of eligibility left, her return was not guaranteed, as Stanford would be using all of its scholarships without one to give to her as a fifth-year senior.

Needing to pay her own way as she started to pursue her master’s degree, Ruef found a job on campus as a project engineer for Preston Pipelines, adding 16 hours of work to her schedule. With a couple season-ending injuries suffered  by teammates, it ended up that Stanford was able to provide Ruef with a scholarship after all, but she kept the job throughout the season.

Stanford’s unquestioned leader is All-American and fellow senior Chiney Ogwumike, who is third in the country with 26.4 points per game. Attention to Ogwumike can leave Ruef open, but if Ruef knocks down shots like she did against North Carolina, the attention that will command could open things up for Ogwumike. Ogwumike says that the relationship they have allows for both of them to get the best out of each other.

“I played with my sister, which was awesome, but [Ruef] is the closest thing to my sister,” Ogwumike said. “We have a great relationship, and she just gives me confidence. If I’m not playing well, she gets me out of it, if she’s struggling, we talk about it, and that’s during the game.”

Ogwumike and Vanderveer have been able to see improvements in several areas for Ruef, both on the court and off it, in a large part thanks to her confidence.

“I think her confidence has gone through the roof,” Ogwumike said. “She’s worked really hard all year long to work on her shot, developing her skills, but her confidence is why she’s playing so well.”

 “She has been one of the most improved players that we’ve ever had at Stanford,” Vanderveer said.