Paul Sakuma, Associated Press
STANFORD, Calif. — Tara VanDerveer remembers the moment almost as if it were yesterday: Candice Wiggins and her fellow starters huddled in a circle, holding hands in close-knit celebration after finally ending Stanford's 10-year Final Four drought.
That was four years ago at the Spokane Regional after a thrilling victory over top-seeded Maryland. This weekend, VanDerveer's No. 1 Cardinal (31-2) will return to that very site in the Pacific Northwest needing two more wins to reach a fourth straight Final Four.
"That was a fabulous game," VanDerveer recalled of the regional final. "We had a little chip on our shoulder because we were a No. 2 seed. It was incredibly intense and moving. We want to go back there and recapture that spirit. We have to play well."
Wiggins scored 41 points that night to lead Stanford past Maryland 98-87. The Cardinal went on to upset Connecticut in the Final Four before falling to Tennessee in the NCAA title game in Tampa, Fla. Current fifth-year senior Melanie Murphy was Wiggins' roommate in Spokane during that run.
"Now, it's like returning to the scene of the crime," Murphy said after practice Wednesday, a day ahead of the team's charter flight to Spokane and check-in day at the historic downtown Davenport Hotel. "That year was a huge turning point. The Maryland game finally put us over the hump, back to the Final Four. Then, we had a lot of returners the next year, which allowed us to continue that legacy (of annual Final Four trips) that we had in the 90s."
Stanford is riding a 25-game winning streak after capturing its 63rd straight home victory at Maples Pavilion on Monday night by beating St. John's 75-49. Next up is No. 5 North Carolina (27-8) on Saturday at the Spokane Arena.
Thanks to Murphy's music writing skills and a whirlwind on-campus production over the past two weeks right at Maples, the Cardinal debuted a music video Wednesday to bring some additional hype to the weekend. "I Got Bounce" hit YouTube and Facebook on Wednesday and was already beginning to generate quite a buzz.
"A lot of people think Stanford, we're a bunch of deadbeats," said VanDerveer, who thinks the video could create even more interest for potential Stanford-bound high school students. "It's just the opposite."
Stanford has already played in Spokane once this season, beating Gonzaga 84-78 in a hard-fought game on Nov. 21. The West Coast Conference champion Zags also have advanced to the round of 16 after the 11th-seeded hosts upset No. 3 UCLA 89-75 on Monday night.
A Stanford-Gonzaga regional final would thrill the basketball-crazed Eastern Washington city.
Kayla Pedersen and Jeanette Pohlen, now the Cardinal's two senior stars, were freshmen the last time in Spokane and playing in their first NCAA tournament.
"I think my favorite memory from that trip was the Maryland game — how hyped we were, how Candice led the way," Pedersen said. "So, yeah, we're both excited to go back to Spokane. I know Jeanette and I really wanted to go back because we had gone there our freshman year. It's a really special place for us and we hope we can get the win."
Make that four more wins, actually.
This group won't be satisfied with just getting to the Final Four in Indianapolis. Not in this special season. Not after leading at halftime in last year's final only to lose to two-time reigning champion UConn, then beating the Huskies in commanding fashion at Maples on Dec. 30 to snap their record 90-game winning streak.
Eight days before that milestone win over UConn, VanDerveer joined North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell in the elite 800 wins club.
Stanford should be at full strength to face Hatchell's tall and aggressive team, which advanced to the round of 16 by beating Kentucky 86-74 on Monday night behind a 55-31 rebounding advantage.
Pac-10 Freshman of the Year Chiney Ogwumike is recovering from a dislocated pinkie finger on her non-shooting left hand that isn't considered serious, while freshman reserve Toni Kokenis has a sprained left ankle. X-rays were negative for Kokenis and VanDerveer hopes she will be ready to go Saturday.
VanDerveer got a kick out of seeing her players' dance skills in the music video, which she said brought this bunch together in a different way.
Yet her job has been to keep everybody on task. The coaches spent Tuesday studying up on North Carolina and game-planning for the physical Tar Heels. The next round is the next step for a team determined to capture the program's first national championship since 1992.
"This would be a fun team to win with," VanDerveer said.
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