Stanford wins championship for all those teams that couldn’t

STANFORD, Calif. — Chiney and Nneka Ogwumike had their chances at championships for Stanford that fell short before the sisters finally celebrated one in San Antonio when the Cardinal finally got it done again.

Kate Starbird, Nicole Powell, Candice Wiggins and countless others were also part of talented Stanford teams that never ended their seasons by cutting down the nets.

“It’s heartbreaking to go through that,” recalled Tara VanDerveer, who completed her 35th year coaching Stanford by capturing the program’s first NCAA championship since 1992.

The Cardinal had made 10 Final Four appearances only to come up empty-handed since the previous championship — twice finishing as runners-up before holding off Pac-12 r ival Arizona 54-53 to end the nearly three-decade drought.

“It means everything,” Wiggins said of seeing Stanford come through this time.

The coach and her emotionally spent team returned to Northern California on Monday for a victory parade through campus after winning it all again.

VanDerveer took time after winning to reflect on all of those special players, deep runs and near-misses. And how this talented team did it for the others who did their part to build the perennial powerhouse.

“I really feel like we won this for all the great players that have played at Stanford,” VanDerveer said. “The former players would be so proud to be part of this team because of the resilience they’ve shown, because of the sisterhood that they represent.”

That sisterhood became even stronger following a poor decision by players in September that could have derailed the championship season before it began.

Kiana Williams and some teammates left campus to play pick-up basketball in a gym nearby when they were supposed to be under quarantine following COVID-19 protocols after everyone reconvened on campus.

VanDerveer shared her disappointment in their choices — and her hurt.

That “incident,” as the coach and her star point guard described it after Sunday night’s win, made Williams strive to be a better leader. The only way she imagined making it up to her coach: hoist the championship trophy.

“When she found out she was just so heartbroken and disappointed,” Williams shared. “I felt like the only way to make up for that is to win a national championship for her. “Me and Alyssa (Jerome), we said from there on out we’re going to be better leaders, follow the rules, follow protocol, to win this natty. To look back on that experience, having that feeling to now, I’m extremely proud of this team.

“I also want to add I feel like it was worth it going to play those pickup games.”

Yet positive coronavirus tests from that group delayed the start of practice. VanDerveer, in a more risky age group if she were to contract the virus, expressed her feelings and frustrations.

“I was hurt. I was upset. I let them know that,” she said. “I think, though, that developed more trust with us as a staff with our players. They understood that you have to be accountable. But since then, we did have staff test positive — three staff — but no players.

“I think that incident helped us because they were quarantined for 14 days. … It was a very tough year. That was just the beginning of it. But I think that really set the tone that said, ‘We’re going to be honest, we’re going to be trustworthy, and we need that from all of us.’ I think it was a learning experience.”

It helped these close-knit women, who spent more than two months on the road living out of hotels, make it up to the Hall of Fame coach they admire.

“So many great players have passed through this program. They have all come for the same reason that we have, to be coached by the greatest, to develop not only as a player but just as a person, as a young woman,” sophomore Haley Jones said. “So I think this is just an honor to be able to do this for her and with her.”

The 67-year-old VanDerveer is the all-time winningest women’s coach and not ready to say whether she is pondering retirement now that she is back on top — not yet anyway.

“Maybe I’ll think about it later. Right now I am very excited about what we accomplished, and I’m really excited about the team that we have … and the young people that are committed to Stanford,” VanDerveer said. “I’m happy. I’m enjoying it. I don’t know if I can go through another COVID year, so I hope everybody is wearing their mask. Let’s get better so we can get back to normal.”

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