This Date in Cardinal Women's Hoops: 4-01-90

The Bootleg's Mark DeVaughn recalls the Cardinal women's righteous run to the 1990 NCAA basketball title. Led by Naismith Award-winner Jennifer Azzi, Sonja Henning and Katy Steding, head coach Tara VanDerveer's sweet-shooting squad shot the stripes right off the Auburn Tigers, winning 88-81 and bringing home the championship for Stanford...and it happened on This Date in Cardinal Women's Hoops!

This Date in Cardinal Women's Hoops: 4-01-90

They visited the White House, twice played in front of a record crowd for a women's Final Four, and were followed in a PBS documentary.

Indeed everything about the first national championship for Stanford's women's basketball was uncharted territory.

It had never been done before, although the Cardinal spent the entire 1989-90 season preparing to get it done. Stanford completed its title run on this very date 19 years ago, when a record-setting 32-1 season ended with an 88-81 victory over No. 9 ranked Auburn.

"We just know this is our season. We want it all," junior forward Trisha Stevens said during the season. "So there's nothing that's going to get in our way."

A crowd of 20,023 at Knoxville, Tenn.'s Thompson-Boling Arena watched the final, whose gathering surpassed the semifinals, when Stanford upended Dawn Staley and #12-ranked Virginia before over 19,000, which briefly broke all women's Final Four attendance records. CBS Sports (Hide your daughters, folks - it's Pat O'Brien!) was in "the house that Pat Summit built". So were a lot of local basketball fans intent on seeing a hometown gal enjoy her last college hoops hurrah.

Few have ended their collegiate careers in the fashion of Jennifer Azzi, the program-changing Stanford guard and Tennessee-born native of Oak Ridge, a town just 25 miles northwest of Knoxville. Azzi received two huge ovations from the friendly crowd, one during starting lineup introductions, the other as she came to bench after fouling out at the 1:28 mark. Before heading to the bench for the final time in a Cardinal uniform, Azzi had scored 17 points, nailing four three-pointers to secure a national championship and the NCAA tournament's most outstanding player award..

"I was kinda thinking we had won, but there was still a lot time left," said Azzi, a lightly-recruited guard out of high school who won the Naismith Award that year honoring the NCAA Player of the Year(as well as the Wade Trophy and the Honda-Broderick Award). "I was just sitting there thinking, ‘Let it be over.' "

Point guard Sonja Henning netted 21 points, slicing up Auburn's vaunted zone press. Azzi and and classmate Katy Steding made five three-pointers combined in the opening nine minutes to stake the Cardinal to a 22-11 edge. The battling Tigers led by as many as nine points late in the first half, only to see Stanford take a 12-point lead with 10 minutes left.

''This is absolutely amazing," Steding said. "This is as sweet as the best hot fudge sundae you've ever tasted."

No one knew at the time that even bigger things were in store for Steding and Azzi, who would later team to win an Olympic gold medal for the United States and their own college coach VanDerveer.

Sweet it was, but a decidedly sour taste of defeat had followed the club for the previous year ever since Venus Lacy and Louisiana Tech had eliminated Stanford from the 1989 regional finals. All ensuing efforts pointed to a national championship and a return date with the Lady Techsters, who themselves went unbeaten until the Final Four. The Cardinal rolled through the season, losing only at Washington in the final minute.

On hand to document the season-long mobilization effort were producer Becky Smith ("Queer Eye for the Straight Guy") and the acclaimed "Frontline" series. The episode first aired nationally on PBS in March of 1994, offering a women's sports fans welcome respite from the recent Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan "knee-capping-for-hire" shenanigans.

Narrated by actress Alfre Woodard, the program chronicled the championship season over a six-month stretch, from fall workouts' sweat to the national title glow. Revelations ranged from head coach Tara VanDerveer's sometimes contentious relationships with her players (Steding, for one) to Stanford's lasting legacy in women's sports.

In April of 1896, Cal and Stanford played in the first intercollegiate women's basketball game. Stanford's enterprising young ladies won the 9-on-9 contest by a score of 2-1, only to soon see school president David Starr Jordan (depicted as part Montgomery Burns, part Dabney Coleman from "9-to-5") ban organized women's sports from his Stanford campus.

Nearly a century later, Stanford athletic director Andy Geiger oversaw a flourishing women's basketball program. Maples Pavilion averaged nearly 3,000 fans per-game in 1989-90, about 10 times the usual draw when Steding and Azzi were freshmen on the Farm.

VanDerveer and assistants Amy Tucker, Julie Plank and Rene Brown grew their program with very hefty recruiting budget. Blue-chippers like Henning (Wisconsin), Steding (Oregon) and Chris MacMurdo (South Carolina) made for immediate help. The Cardinal used its lofty academic reputation as leverage, selling a Stanford diploma as a safety net for a sport without the financial draw of a professional women's hoops league.

Having arrived in 1985 from Ohio State, VanDerveer went just 13-15 her first year, 14-14 the next and a break-out 27-5 in 1988, when the Cardinal won an NCAA Tournament game for the very first time. All key components returned for 1989-90, when the freshman class featured stars-to-be in dominating power forward Val Whiting and guard Molly Goodenbour.

"I had a lot of confidence," VanDerVeer said at the time of her propgram-building efforts. "In my mind, I felt we were a Final Four-caliber team at Ohio State. So I thought, ‘OK I can do it again.'"

Auburn dared Henning to be the key factor, focusing its defensive efforts around Azzi and Steding. The latter buried a championship game record six three-pointers. Whiting and Stevens pounded away against the Tigers' foul-troubled frontline.

Henning salted away the championship, making seven foul shots down the stretch as her teammates locked arms in giddy anticipation on the sideline. All that was out of place was an all-tournament team without the outstanding junior point guard. No matter.

"With all due respect, I didn't come here to make the tournament team," she said. "I came here to win a national championship."

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