Women's Final Four

Stanford Put Bad Trip to Good Use

By Kathy Orton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 5, 2008

Back in January, immediately following the Stanford women basketball team's back-to-back losses at UCLA and Southern California, center Jayne Appel went to her coaches and told them to put her in the film room. She wanted to know what she was doing wrong and what she needed to fix.

Appel's stats from those games don't show a player having problems. Against UCLA, she scored 17 points, grabbed eight rebounds and blocked two shots. Two days later, she had 22 points and 11 rebounds against USC. While some players might be satisfied with those numbers, Appel wasn't.

"That UCLA game was probably the worst game I've played at Stanford," she said.

Appel wasn't the only one unhappy with her performances in those games. Her teammates also point to the losses as the two games that turned around their season. To understand how Stanford (34-3) returned to the Final Four after an 11-year absence, the place to start is the Cardinal's lost weekend in Los Angeles. Those setbacks at UCLA and USC set in motion the remarkable run that has taken the Bay Area school back to the realm it once dominated in the early 1990s.

"We really have been preparing for being in this position all season long," Stanford Coach Tara VanDerveer said. "We did have a bad weekend, but everyone came back and re-dedicated themselves and I think that that's where someone like Jayne just said, 'Hey, what do I need to do to help my team?' Roz [Rosalyn Gold-Onwude] is in the gym more. Candice [Wiggins], J.J. [Hones], everyone stepped up their game. So I feel like this team is ready to be in this position."

Early season wins at then-No. 3 Rutgers and at then-No. 1 Tennessee had left Stanford feeling pretty good. By the time the Pacific-10 Conference season rolled around, Stanford was in full swagger. Then came the Cardinal's Jan. 4 game at UCLA and its Jan. 6 game at USC. The Bruins led nearly the entire game before winning, 69-56. They held Stanford to 17 percent shooting in the second half and scored 22 points off 18 Cardinal turnovers. USC shot 58 percent from three-point range, making 11 shots from behind the arc in its 73-72 victory.

"I don't think we were as focused for UCLA," Appel said. "USC, I think they stole one from us."

The pair of losses "made people accountable for their roles," she added. They "really made people refocus."

Since then, Stanford has been on a tear. Not only has the Cardinal won a nation's best 22 in a row, it also has won its last nine games by an average of 24.6 points. Wiggins has been spectacular in the NCAA tournament, scoring 44 points in a second-round game against Texas-El Paso, then carving up Maryland for 41 points in the regional final. Appel has been nearly as impressive, averaging 21.5 points and 9.8 rebounds in the tournament.

As it readies for its rematch against Connecticut with the chance to advance to its first national championship game since 1992, Stanford hasn't forgotten its lost weekend in Los Angeles. On the contrary, those games are never far from the Cardinal's thoughts.

"It's one of those things, I think, if we look back, we're just a completely different team," Wiggins said. "Obviously, we never wanted to lose those games, but those games really, I mean, whenever we're in a [bad] situation in games, all we have to say is 'UCLA, USC.' All we just say is, 'L.A.' And everyone is like, 'No, we're not losing this game.' It's motivation. You have to have that feeling in the back of your mind of what that feels like to motivate you."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company