STANFORD, Calif. — Tara VanDerveer pulled Brittany McPhee aside at halftime of a game nearly four months ago and made the message clear: Stanford needed to get after it. Back to business, to playing the kind of high-energy, up-tempo basketball that has defined this power program for decades.
"Stanford basketball," as they refer to it.McPhee was nursing a foot injury and not playing, but the Hall of Fame coach counted on her senior leader to properly pass along the sentiments. VanDerveer even acknowledges she had her doubts at that stage of the season whether there might be a special NCAA Tournament run come March.
"It was just kind of like a conversation that was, 'Hey, we need to kick it into gear,' which we knew, but it was just an extra incentive," McPhee recalled of their chat.
Stanford trailed 28-24 at halftime that night of Nov. 29 at mid-major San Francisco of the West Coast Conference. By Dec. 21, following an 83-71 loss to Tennessee at home, the Cardinal were an unimpressive 6-6.
Now, VanDerveer's fourth-seeded Stanford team (24-10) is on to an 11th straight Sweet Sixteen and headed back to the Lexington Regional for the third straight season ready for its first ever matchup against Louisville on Friday night.
What a comeback from that rough start.
Also in late December, the Cardinal fell out of the AP Top 25 after a 17-year run in the rankings dating to the 2001 season and 312 consecutive ranked weeks.
"We did fall at the beginning of the season, but we always in our minds knew that we could get it together and that we could be a really good team that could make a deep run in the tournament," McPhee said. "Even when we had our troubles, we stayed positive and that was kind of the key. We didn't start to blame others. We didn't start to look other places. We just said, 'Hey, these are the things we are getting burned on when we play games, so we need to fix these.' It was never as desperate as our record and I think falling out of the rankings makes it sound."
The Cardinal are coming off commanding victories against Gonzaga and Florida Gulf Coast in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament played on their home court in Maples Pavilion.
It's hard to envision those mighty struggles mere months ago.
"They look like a team that has a real good chance of getting to the Final Four," FGCU coach Karl Smesko said. "They've got a lot of really talented players and they're playing really well right now. They've really got things rolling right now."
Stanford played perhaps its toughest schedule in VanDerveer's 32 years on The Farm — and not completely by design.
There had been a game planned with Louisville in a season-opening tournament at Columbus, Ohio, but VanDerveer wouldn't agree to a 6 p.m. Sunday tipoff for television because it left no guarantee the women would have made it back to campus in time for Monday classes.
So the Cardinal played top-ranked Connecticut instead and lost 78-53. A game at Baylor on Dec. 3 was added to fill another hole when an opponent fell through, and Stanford took an 81-57 beating. The Cardinal lost twice to Ohio State and then at home to Tennessee on Dec. 21, their fifth game against a top-10 team.
"If you look at our record from the beginning, I don't think anyone expected us to get this far. But I've always expected it," senior Kaylee Johnson said. "This is the standard that Stanford sets. Something that we always reminded each other at the beginning of the season is: 'Yeah, our record isn't good, but it's a long season. We want to have what we need in March,' and that's finally come together for us."
The Pac-12 has improved, too, making the conference schedule all that much tougher.
"We're everyone's top rival," VanDerveer said. "But more than the top teams, the bottom teams are really good. There are no easy games. I like some easy games."
That's coming from the coach who loves to schedule the top teams early to prepare her team for the big stage late.
Stanford's upperclassmen, who reached the Final Four last season before losing to eventual national champion South Carolina in the NCAA semifinal, tried to present an example through the ups and downs.
"I think that has been instilled in ourselves and we're trying to pass that on to our freshmen right now, that even if you are down — we had a bad start to the season, we did, we were 6-6 — that doesn't mean that we can't finish strong," junior forward Alanna Smith said. "So we just kept that in our minds. We can't let the start of the season determine what we're going to do."