This Date in Cardinal Women's Hoops: 3-20-88
Lift-off took place where dreams normally crash and burn, in overtime of a close game, in front of a hostile crowd in very unfamiliar territory.
Stanford Women's Basketball enjoyed its first major milestone on this very date 21 years ago, on March 20, 1988. The 13th-ranked Lady Cardinal (a term no longer in use) had never won an NCAA tournament game before holding court in noisy Missoula, Mont. The Cardinal's third-year head coach Tara VanDerveer's crew flirted with disaster before defying the odds, blowing a five-point lead in the closing seconds before rallying in front of a sellout crowd of nearly 9,000 for a thrilling 74-72 victory over the No. 16 and fourth-seeded Montana Grizzlies.
A pair of freshman, each becoming mainstays during their Stanford careers, staved off disaster during the opening-rounder against the Griz (28-2). Point guard Sonja Henning scored 16 points and collected eight rebounds. Forward Trisha Stevens had two huge free throws among her 20 points and nine boards for the No. 5-seed Cardinal, who broke Montana's 17-game home winning streak.
"It could have been over sooner," VanDerveer said. "There were a lot of fouls called, and I thought (the officials) would let both teams play more. That hurt Montana more than it hurt us.
"Today, it was our two freshmen who carried us."
The rookies' efforts made sense, providing a presence that coincided with the program's meteoric rise. Henning and Stephens helped their school reach the first two of the seven Final Fours in Stanford women's hoops history (1990, 1991) . Supplementing the heroics of star guard Jennifer Azzi, they reached the Elite 8 regional finals in 1989 before running the tournament table the following season and bring home the Cardinal women's first NCAA championship.
But Stanford's roster was comprised of virtual unknowns back in 1988, when the NCAA post-season field featured only 40 teams and was all but ignored by national media. The top six seeds in each of the four regions received first-round byes so this matchup was technically a second-round game. It was only the seventh year of the NCAA women's tournament, and officials had "seat-filling capacity" in mind when selecting host sites.
The home court for No. 16 Montana was the 8,886-capacity Dahlberg Arena which was sold out days before the contest. Stanford (27-4) averaged only 1,270 fans per game for its Pac-10 contests. The healthy attendance at Maples Pavilion for a win over Washington (approx. 3,200) was considered a landmark gathering. Stanford, ranked 13th, was forced to take the lower seed in the Midwest.
VanDerveer insisted her side would not be intimidated. This despite the program's first postseason appearance since 1982, the horse-and-buggy days of ladies' college hoops, when Maples hosted a first-round drubbing at the hands of Maryland.
''Their reaction has been really positive," she said of the Big Sky atmosphere. "It's really neat that the support is out there."
The Grizzlies had a big backcourt, with 5-foot-11 Kris Moede and 6-foot Karyn Ridgeway. They played a 2-3 zone and allowed fewer points than any other team in the country, according to pregame quotes from Stanford's head coach.
The Cardinal, with better depth and size in the paint, was laser-focused. Montana became an unwitting victim of the pressure atmosphere, shooting only 36 percent from the floor and clanking on 12 of 25 fouls shots. Stanford went to the foul line 29 times, making 24 shots (83 percent). Montana went scoreless in extra session's first four minutes.
"Their crowd support is tremendous," Henning said. "This week in practice, we had a tape playing as loud as it could. I think that helped us prepare (for the game)."
Stanford led 70-65 with 38 seconds left in regulation. The Grizzlies' Marti Liebenguth countered with a clutch three-pointer before sticking both free throws with five seconds to play, knotting things at 70-apiece.
Stevens' two foul shots 37 seconds into the OT put Stanford up (72-70) to stay. The margin doubled in dramatic fashion, with 3:38 remaining and the 30-second shot clock horn buzzing. Stanford's Kami Anderson, a streaky shooter who once scored 47 points in a high school game in North Dakota, fired a jumper through the net and pushed the score to 74-70.
A short jumper by Ridgeway had the Grizzlies down 74-72 with 55 seconds left. Montana then regained possession in the closing seconds and had a pair of last-second attempts, but Stevens' rebound of the last shot just before the buzzer clinched the momentous win.
And while the 1987-88 Cardinal's road may have ended in the next round (losing to host Texas which won its 23rd straight game), but a scintillating 27-win season (equaling in a single season the combined win total of Tara's first two years on the Farm) plus a Sweet Sixteen experience were in the books. One thing had been made abundantly clear: Stanford Women's Basketball was on the rise.
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