Stanford on the road again, this time to Dallas for the Final Four

Jacob Rayburn, Publisher
Cardinal Sports Report
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USA TODAY Sports Images

Stanford was home for a couple days after an extended road trip that culminated in Lexington, Kentucky’s Rupp Arena, where the Cardinal stunned No. 1 seed Notre Dame with a rally from a 16-point deficit.

The Cardinal are on their way to Dallas for the program’s seventh Final Four in the past 10 years. Only UConn, a perfect 10-for-10, is better during that time.

“The Notre Dame game, honestly, after that game I don’t think we needed a plane to fly back,” said head coach Tara VanDerveer. “It’s good that we’ve had a couple days because it really does drain you. I think we’re going to be in really good shape by the time we get down to Dallas.

“We’ve been gone a long time, but traveling with this group is fun. They’re a great group of women. I cannot tell you how proud I am of them. This team will be a team that I use with other teams in the future. This is how you want to be.”

The win over Notre Dame likely will be remembered as one of the most exciting in program history. And that’s not a short list.

Much has been made of the player tradition called “Code Red,” which has many definitions but generally describes a willingness to do whatever it takes to win the game. But the off-court requirement for “Code Red” to work is that teammates have to want to keep playing together beyond the usual competitiveness an athlete has to win.

“We really love each other,” said captain Karlie Samuelson. “We have no drama. It doesn’t matter who does well … that’s why I think we’re doing so well. We do it for each other. We are a completely selfless team and I love that.”

The way VanDerveer describes the team's personality, it matches the best way for the Cardinal to win given the type of talent assembled on the roster.

"We’re not a one-on-one team," she said. "We don’t have the best one-on-one players in the country or in the tournament. But together look where we are. I think that’s a great message for other teams or just in our country. When you work together amazing things can happen. When you really care about the people you’re playing with it makes it really special."

Brittany McPhee, who led the Cardinal with 27 points against the Fighting Irish, described the in-game calming effect of the team’s captains.

“This senior class … they couldn’t be more perfect,” she said. “They are the best leaders out there and are so positive with everyone. They never give up on anything.”

Stanford didn’t despair after an 18-0 run by Notre Dame put Stanford down by 16 in the first half of the Elite Eight game. The Cardinal worked their way back the way they had all season, with hard work and good decisions.

One of the key figures in the turnaround was sophomore Marta Sniezek. The point guard only scored two points, but she had eight assists and zero turnovers.

Sniezek has been a point guard since she was five and seeing a defense comes naturally to her. She also was raised in a big family, an experience she said taught her to handle different personalities and how to properly interpret the occasional sharply worded conversation.

Which helps explain why VanDerveer said he can be very "direct" with Sniezek.

“She puts a lot of trust in me,” Sniezek said. “I think that’s important. I’ve learned so much from her. I try to go out there and do what she tells me to do every time. Tara doesn’t sugarcoat anything with me and I just take it and absorb it. Whether it’s directed at me, whether she’s venting, whatever it is, I absorb it and use what she’s saying in a good way.”

VanDerveer appreciates the sophomore's mature ability to gather the information she needs and play smart basketball.

“Sometimes I need someone to be hard on,” VanDerveer said. “She gets that. But she, whether she's in the game, she might make mistakes. She might be upset. But she really stays engaged mentally."

How much confidence VanDerveer has in Sniezek to run the offense was on display against Notre Dame. Trailing 57-53, VanDerveer called a set that ends with a lob to McPhee. It worked perfectly, and not for the first time this season it got a big smile from Sniezek.

“That really got us going,” she said. “That was a momentum changer for sure. We were closing the gap on them. Tara is really big on no turnovers. If it’s not there don’t force it. Every time (we run that play) I’m like, ‘Oh God, oh God, just do it.” I’m glad Britt was able to get there and finish it.”

And if Stanford can finish this season with two more wins -- a season in which VanDerveer got her 1,000th career win with a team that has established a special place in her heart?

“I’d love it to be a destiny thing,” she said. “(Pointing to list of conference and national championships) We have room for 2017 up there. But I take each day and enjoy each day. Practice with our team today, traveling, going to the Final Four … it has been an incredible year and we want the best part to be ahead of us.”

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