Savory Stew

After an exciting season during which Stanford vanquished multiple Top 10 foes, the "tough and together" Cardinal made some Stanford history by reaching the program's first National Championship game since 1992. They may have lost the game but Wiggins went out a winner and the future looks bright. Everybody, smile!

Basketball season is over, and even though Stanford's year ended on a loss, only the most hardened Cardinal soul isn't smiling like a fool anyway. Stanford did not win the National Championship on Tuesday evening in Tampa. The Card could not sustain their high level of play for one last game and Tennessee's very physical and aggressive defense stripped them of the ball and any chance to regroup and regain focus. Though painful, the loss matters relatively little in the long run. This was a season to savor. After a decade without a Final Four appearance, not only did Stanford make it back, they knocked off the top #1 seed, the Connecticut Huskies, in the semi-final game to grab their shot at a championship.

The Cardinal constructed a truly amazing tournament run featuring some of the best and most entertaining play of the tournament. Candice Wiggins, with her record-setting two 40-point NCAA tournament games and brilliant smile, will have an army of new fans following her WNBA career. Jayne Appel, Kayla Pedersen, JJ Hones, Rosalyn Gold-Onwude, Jillian Harmon, Jeanette Pohlen, Morgan Clyburn, Ashley Cimino, Hannah Donaghe, Michelle Harrison, Melanie Murphy and the incoming freshmen will be watched with anticipation next season as they try to build on what the 2007-08 Cardinal achieved. If the attitude and focus of this team stay with the returning players, good things will be in store.

We could reiterate some of the brilliant play of individual Stanford players, but we won't. We know you know all about them by now. This was about the team and what they accomplished together. Everyone had brilliant stretches without which the Cardinal would not have reached the championship game. This tournament has shown the extent to which the Card are true chameleons. It is no coincidence that various players step up so big for the Cardinal so often or that the team that could outscore Maryland could also out-slug Pittsburgh. When a team takes what opponents give and no one cares who shoulders the scoring load in any one game, various "surprise" stars will appear. But they aren't really surprises. The Cardinal had a superb season because it was not surprising when a "role player" stepped to the fore. Team effort all the way.

Tennessee may have won the title (again) to make history, but this was more of a program-defining tournament for Stanford than for the Vols, who are nobody's underdog, even though they tried to claim that role for themselves. Tennessee star Candace Parker shot a television spot where she said anything less than a title was a failure. Those were not the words of an underdog. There was no appreciation of the achievement of simply reaching the final weekend or acknowledgement of how fickle the basketball gods can be. That the Cardinal, the true underdogs, were not able to finish their grand ride with a win does not detract from the delightful, thrilling ride that it was.

In the title game the Cardinal did not appear to have the intense focus they exhibited while beating #1 seeds Maryland and Connecticut, but maybe it was asking for a tad too much to expect them to keep up that level for three straight games against the best opponents and under the highest pressure. Stanford came out looking less than perfect and with the Vols turning on the defensive pressure, the Card could not recover their equilibrium. Tennessee was clearly the better team on the day. The Vols totally took the Card out of their game and forced them into uncharacteristic turnovers and rushed shots. But don't be misled by the ugliness of this one game. Stanford could have won it, Tennessee pressure and all, if they had played their best. Could have does not mean would have, because Tennessee was in full championship mode, but this was a winnable game. The Card were within 4 in the second half even as they struggled to find their rhythm. Make a few fewer loose passes, a few more free throws, and convert a missed layup or two and it could have been anyone's game. Water under the bridge (of which there were many in Tampa) to be sure, but good to keep in mind (in a good, "we could have had those guys" way).

The NCAA tournament run was the capper on an excellent season, maybe even a dream season. Anyone who thought the tournament run was a fluke wasn't paying attention. Over the course of the season, Stanford defeated Tennessee, Connecticut, Rutgers, and Maryland, who all made the Elite Eight or beyond. The only real downers were the injuries to Michelle Harrison and Melanie Murphy. The stinging November loss to Connecticut was avenged and then some. The double disaster in Los Angeles turned out to be a huge positive kick in the pants. As sad as it was to see Candice Wiggins depart for the WNBA, there was a sense of closure in her leaving. This was not an anguished goodbye. The best player in Stanford history walked away with applause ringing in her ears after leading her team to historic heights. Wiggins and her teammates wrung every ounce out of the season and looked like they were having a blast doing it. What more could one want? You might say Stanford caught some lightening in a bottle, but they were the ones who produced the corresponding thunder.

There is no need to recount Wiggins' equally joyful and astounding exploits (because we know you know them too!), but it was a rare privilege to watch her, as it was to observe the togetherness of the team, their growth over the course of the season both individually and collectively, and their incredible mental toughness. We have the good fortune to welcome most of the team back. Even without Wiggins and Cissy Pierce, the future looks potentially dazzling. All the other Final Four participants were much more experienced. Tennessee and semi-final loser LSU started five seniors in contrast to the Cardinal's crew of underclassmen plus one mother hen to keep the chicks from scattering in wrong directions. The departure of Wiggins leaves a crater a mile across, but watching the returning players, one gets a sense they are prepared to take leadership roles and keep the "tough and together" theme alive.

Now that this amazing season is over, the whole colorful, loud, crazy Final Four extravaganza seems a little surreal to this fan. We just aren't used to this anymore! Not to having things go so right for so long. Not to the hype and the massive number of news stories and TV features about the Cardinal. I tried to read all I could find to see how the coverage ranged but I failed, and frankly even I was getting a little sick of us. We were the overhyped ones this time! It was bombastic, fantastic overkill! It was grotesque and fabulous! We were the ones picked and therefore cursed by ESPN's expert panel of bandwagon jumpers. Oh, joy! Let's do it again.

And now that the strain of struggling past that Elite Eight barrier has been lifted, envisioning future Final Fours with a Cardinal flavor becomes eminently more possible. It will not be easier to reach a Final Four. The competition will be just as keen. But the Cardinal no longer will labor under the weight of a decade's worth of dashed hopes and the wariness of supporters who had kept the love but were becoming reluctant to hope for too much again. There have been so many excellent seasons recently with Pac-10 titles and Elite Eights to celebrate, but after a while even that high level of achievement was taken for granted. Losses were easier to dwell upon than wins. Those who have continued to bleed cardinal were overdue for some extra-special treat to counterbalance years of agonizing over devastating injuries, controversial calls, and the yearly simplistic reporting of the Harvard game. Most fans are in it for much more than just the wins, but they do need that happy adrenalin rush once in a while. The players and coaches did all the hard work and deserve the joy 1000 times more than those of us in the stands, but thrilling the longtime supporters and making new fans gives any program a boost. A strong program needs devoted and energized fans. This season was one giant energy drink (hold the caffeine please). The vibe has changed. In short, there are no more monkeys. Stand tall and flex those shoulder muscles. Bounce up and down and feel the new lightness. Eat a banana even. The area has been cleared of non-human primates.

To all the players and coaches and everyone associated with the Stanford women's basketball program, thanks for the memories and thanks for the fun. After the loss to Tennessee in the title game, Candice Wiggins said adamantly that she would not want to be in any other locker room. Well I would just as adamantly not want to be cheering for any other team. I don't want to be cheering for a dynasty that is almost guaranteed to make the Final Four. I don't care if the pundits have decided that Stanford is not "athletic" enough (Amazing that such plodders can play basketball isn't it?). Winning is more precious when it isn't so easy. If I have to, I will wait, hope, and cheer loudly for another decade to get a chance to hop on the big rollercoaster ride known as the Final Four. Something tells me I won't have to wait nearly that long.


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