At Stanford, the Tough Get Going

Candice Wiggins celebrates with Kayla Pedersen after Stanford beat Connecticut to advance to tonight's final.
Candice Wiggins celebrates with Kayla Pedersen after Stanford beat Connecticut to advance to tonight's final. (By Gerry Broome -- Associated Press)
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Tuesday, April 8, 2008; Page E01

TAMPA Their uniforms are black, as a warning: "Hey, we're not just the little nice Stanford team everybody knows," forward Kayla Pedersen says. Nice little Stanford teams wear a pretty shade of Cardinal red, lose gracefully and go back to their textbooks on fluid mechanics. This team has unexpectedly upset every bully in the women's NCAA tournament, and is eyeing the national championship.

"We're soft, and we don't like to battle," Coach Tara VanDerveer says, unsmilingly. "Don't start a rumor that we're tough."

The Final Four was projected to be all about Tennessee and Connecticut, the perennial powers of women's basketball, who have been quarreling like countries. But the Cardinal, practically unmentioned and relegated to a No. 2 seed, has dominated the tournament so far, precisely because of that quality it's hardly known for: toughness.

The Cardinal is a deceiving team, from end to end of its roster. It's easy to misinterpret the bench composure of its coach, VanDerveer, as somehow placid. She's not. She's the most acute strategist in the game, with a taste for the offensive dagger, as the Cardinal's 98 points against Maryland in the Spokane Region final, and an 82-73 carving-up of U-Conn. in the national semifinals (with 20 assists on 28 field goals) demonstrated. It's easy to read Stanford's star player, Candice Wiggins, as incurably sweet with her expressions bright as car flashers, and overall effusiveness. "I've been referred to as, you know, bubbly," Wiggins says. She's not. She's a cutthroat scorer, the only women's player to ever rack up more than 40 points twice in the same tournament.

It's easy to look at the baby faces of post players Jayne Appel and Pedersen and think they can be had. They can't. The reason they adopted black as a team color was to "make us feel tougher," Pedersen says. The mind-set began in the offseason, when VanDerveer decided she was sick of seeing her teams get shoved around. The Cardinal had made three straight region final appearances, but had fallen short. There were games in which VanDerveer felt her team was physically overmatched, and that opponents had tagged Stanford as a team that was a little soft, a little too West Coast. VanDerveer insisted that the Cardinal players get in the weight room in the offseason, and when they reconvened in the fall, she assigned an essay on the following topic: What is the meaning of toughness and togetherness?

"We just needed players to say, 'Enough is enough,' " VanDerveer says. "Everyone got in the weight room and said, 'If we lose, it won't be because we got pushed around.' "

It paid off. One afternoon in practice, VanDerveer looked on the floor and saw that Appel had Pedersen in a headlock.

They debuted their black uniforms on the road against famously hard-nosed Rutgers in the second game of the season. They came away with 60-58 victory over a team that had been the runner-up in the 2007 NCAA tournament. Just before Thanksgiving, they suffered a setback with a 12-point loss to U-Conn., but just before Christmas, they upset Tennessee for the first time in 11 years, 73-69, in overtime. "I think that extremely helped our confidence," Appel says. "We weren't necessarily shocked; we just knew we had to battle it out hard in overtime."

It was a defining victory: "Teams that beat Tennessee get to the Final Four," VanDerveer told them afterward.

A couple of the biggest shots in the overtime were three-pointers from point guard Rosalyn Gold-Onwude. It's easy to hear the eloquence of Gold-Onwude and assume she's more fluent in public speaking -- she actually teaches a Stanford seminar on the subject for "brilliant people who have a hard time expressing their ideas" -- than she is in basketball. She's not. She's the daughter of an engineer from Queens, N.Y., who grew up playing in the hard-court, chain-net milieu of New York street ball. Toughness there "was the X factor, it's in the water," she says. The Final Four crowds of 21,000 are the largest she has ever played in front of, but they're nothing compared with the abusive hecklers clinging to the fences in New York. Her recreational league coach always told her: "You can't let anybody punk you; you can't let anybody thug you, no matter what."

"It's crowded; it's packed," she says. "People are out there oohin' and aahin' when you get crossed, or someone makes a crazy move on you, or somebody scores on you. You've got to have heart. You've got to have a thick skin, too."

A significant measure of the Cardinal's fiber came in Sunday's semifinal against U-Conn. Before the game, VanDerveer passed out booklets to the team: She had collected and bound their essays on toughness. Connecticut boasted a formidable record in Final Four games, with five national championships. But the Cardinal not only won the rematch, it led for all but seven seconds and withstood full-court pressure down the stretch, answering big shots with bigger shots. Afterward, Wiggins brought her teammates together in the locker room for a speech.

"We might have failed the midterm, but we aced the final," she said.

Said Gold-Onwude: "Leave it to Stanford players to talk about tests."

The ultimate test, obviously, is a title game against the seven-time national champion Lady Vols, led by their colossal talent, Candace Parker. It's a formidable task: No team has had to beat U-Conn. and Tennessee to win a trophy. But the prospect doesn't seem to give the Cardinal pause. The other day, the players were measured for their Final Four rings. They had a choice: a thin small band, a slightly thicker midsize one or a huge, table-thumping chunk of gold. Guess which one Gold-Onwude wanted?

"At random moments it'll hit me that we're in the championship game, but I'm not as awed as I should be," she says. "We're playing a team we've beaten before. So there's a feeling that this is very doable."

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