The "Table-Setting" Season of 1988-89
On the same day Super Bowl XIX took over Stanford Stadium for the 49ers and Dolphins, Ohio State's St. John Arena played host to an equally impressive crowd, at least for a women's college basketball game. Head coach Tara VanDerveer held court with 10,000 fans around her -- and a seemingly bright future ahead of her in sports-crazed Columbus.
The following year, VanDerveer would find herself leading a Stanford team with tiny expectations for success and even less fan support. The bold career move – made by a rising young coach who had collected 110 wins in five years with the Buckeyes – begged the obvious question.
"I think it's a challenge to turn a program around and to see improvement," VanDerveer countered during her breakthrough 1988-89 campaign, her fourth on The Farm. "The most rewarding thing in basketball is to see someone you coach really improve. To see a whole team improve is really a challenge."
Enormous obstacles facing Stanford women's hoops – like an average home attendance of about 100 fans per-game in VanDerveer's first season – were distant memories even by this very week 21 years ago. Behind a career-best 31 points from junior forward Trisha Stevens, the fourth-ranked Cardinal blitzed No.7 Iowa in the Midwest Regional semifinals to grab an Elite Eight berth against reigning national champion Louisiana Tech.
The 98-74 victory against the Hawkeyes validated a season of accomplishment for Stanford, which took its first giant leaps toward national prominence that year. The Stanford women won the conference, appeared on national television and reached an NCAA tournament regional final – all for the first time.
Arizona and UNLV emerged as the West's top men's teams; Stanford men even enjoyed a break-through season as the Pac-10 runner-up. However no single men's or women's program on the Pacific Coast finished 1988-89 ranked as highly as VanDerveer's squad, which wound up 28-3 despite a season-ending 85-75 defeat to the Lady Techsters. "Combining gender," athletic director Andy Geiger proudly quipped at the time, "Stanford has the best basketball team in the nation."
The individual leaders remain familiar names. Junior Jennifer Azzi finished among the top 10 in six of the conference's statistical categories, the only Pac-10 player to do so. Of the 10-member Kodak All-American team, Azzi was the lone "non-senior". Katy Steding, who collected gold at the 1996 Summer Olympics along with Azzi, averaged 15 points per game.
But during a week in which Stanford will make its 17th all-time Sweet 16 appearance, it's worth remembering some less-notables. Freshman Martha Richards, who later played women's golf for Stanford, canned a key three-pointer late in the first half against Iowa. Six-foot-five center Jill Yanke was a mainstay as the team's lone senior starter. She joined classmates Evon Asforis and Emily Wagner as the only holdovers recruited by previous head coach Dotty McCrea, under whom the Cardinal had managed little in the way of national headway.
After the Cardinal went a combined 14-42 during the previous two seasons, VanDerveer arrived on the Farm. Her first team somehow managed a 13-15 record. "To call that team 'mediocre' is a compliment," she later said. The Pac-10 finally debuted as a women's league in 1986-87.
The legacy of losing disappeared almost as quickly as the new boss's arrival. The Cardinal was roaring into the NCAA's by her third season, starting the season 23-1 and then winning a first-round game at Montana. By 1988-89, Stanford finished unbeaten both in conference play and at home. The lone regular-season defeats occurred in cross-country trips to Tennessee and North Carolina State. The roster was deep and talented, with three freshmen – Chris MacMurdo, Richards and Julie Zeilstra – ranked among the nation's top 10 players coming out of high school the previous year. Azzi, listed at shooting guard, led the Pac-10 in assists.
VanDerveer by now was miffed over "not even getting a boxscore in the local papers." A long-awaited landmark was in order on March 9, when ESPN televised that evening's home proceedings against USC. A close game at halftime (45-37) turned into a 100-85 Cardinal win. Azzi, never short on showmanship, poured in a career-best 25 points. Steding had 10 points and 11 rebounds.
Stanford settled for a No. 2 tournament seeding, easily dispatching of Illinois State at Maples before heading to Ruston, La. for the regional. Standing in the way would be two formidable opponents. First would be the Hawkeyes, coached by C. Vivian Stringer and led by All-American center Shanda Berry. The reward for victory? Facing defending national champ Louisiana Tech on its home floor.
The first half against Iowa was close, though only until Berry hit the bench with 6:22 remaining until halftime with her third foul. Stanford outscored Iowa by a 12-2 margin over a three-minute stretch to take a 37-29 lead. Richards gamely ended the Hawkeyes' run of five straight points by canning a three-pointer just before the halftime buzzer. Stanford was up 40-34 at the break.
The fourth-ranked Cardinal outscored the Hawkeyes 15-2 to open the second half, as Iowa went without a field goal for the first 5:22 following the break. Even after Berry returned less than three minutes into the half, Stanford's lead never fell below 20 points for the remainder of the Thursday night contest. The performance extended the impressive Stanford win streak to 22.
Louisiana Tech dispatched of in-state rival LSU in the other regional semifinal. Stanford finally met its match against the immensely talented Lady Techsters, who overpowered the Pac-10 champs. Tech pulled down 27 offensive rebounds while holding an overall 51-38 edge on the boards. Both Azzi and Stevens fouled out, and the Cardinal were unable to erase an 18-point deficit.
The loss hurt, but the team already knew Maples Pavilion would host the 1990 West Regional. A first-ever national championship for the Cardinal women that next year would only further validate VanDerveer's improvement assertions.
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