STANFORD, Calif. (AP) -- Hall of Fame coach Tara VanDerveer ended practice 30 minutes early Thursday, and that almost never happens.
Three hours on the floor has long been the Stanford standard.
“I can count on one hand. Two or three times since I've been here," said junior point guard Kiana Williams. “We go the full three hours. She's just in a good mood."
That new No. 1 ranking have something to do with it?
“That could be it. I doubt it, though," Williams chuckled, knowing full well the answer before adding, “No way.”
Perhaps because final exams are on the horizon next week?
And these aren't just any finals, either, they're finals Stanford-style.
“Just chem" - yes, chemistry, “just” chemistry - for freshman sensation Francesca Belibi, who plans to pursue medicine and whose pregame dunks do plenty to fire up her teammates. She has missed only twice.
For junior forward Maya Dodson, it's intro to American law for her self-created major, engineering and ethics.
Sophomore guard Jenna Brown wrote a 12-page paper on welfare policy for an economics course focused on understanding the welfare system.
No finals at all for the fortunate Anna Wilson, to which Belibi notes: “She's living that lavish life. It's pretty incredible.”
“We hope we're the No. 1 test-taking team this week," quipped assistant coach Lindy La Rocque.
Last weekend, then-No. 1 Oregon and No. 2 Baylor both lost, clearing the way for the unbeaten Cardinal (8-0) to climb two places.
“It was crazy. Oregon and Baylor lost on the same day. Just by default we went to the No. 1 spot but we're not too happy. We're not satisfied by any means," Williams said. “It's not stopping us from working as hard as we are in practice or boosting us. We're the same team that we were. We also have a sense of urgency because we have a bigger target on our back. We already have a target on our back because we're Stanford. Now we're Stanford No. 1.
“We don't really worry about rankings. It changes. It only matters in March, winning in March - March, April."
VanDerveer quickly offered up her position on the poll, “I don't even care about that."
Still, this is new territory for this group.
Stanford is atop The Associated Press poll for the first time since a six-week stretch at No. 1 in late 2012. The Cardinal players know thanks to VanDerveer's near-daily reminders that it's about the journey to be playing the best basketball come NCAA Tournament time in March.
“I don't really know how to feel about it. It doesn't change anything," said sophomore Lacie Hull, who plays with twin sister Lexie. “It's super exciting for us to have that support and confidence in us and I think it will push us to work harder."
In fact, even though practice had surprisingly stopped after 2 1/2 hours, three players stayed to sit down individually at three separate tables with a coach: freshman Ashten Prechtel next to VanDerveer, Brown with associate head coach Kate Paye and freshman Haley Jones alongside La Rocque.
“People know that it's November-December. You're just trying to get better, you're playing good teams,” VanDerveer said. “I use the analogy that I'm on the Peloton and I'm on the leaderboard in the first five minutes of the ride. I've got a lot of pedaling left. We want to challenge ourselves to keep improving. Our team is confident but very humble. ... For the most part we could be 4-4 as easy as we're 8-0."
After practice and before leaving campus to pick up her three beloved Labrador retrievers, VanDerveer passed volleyball coach Kevin Hambly as his defending NCAA champion Cardinal prepared to host the first and second rounds of the NCAA Tournament this weekend.
“Congrats on 1,” he said.
“We want to get to where you are at the end of the race,” she responded.
"Ït's a new race," he said.
And she was off for the dogs.
“They go to class," VanDerveer shared. “They are lifetime learners."
Exactly how VanDerveer has approached her job for decades now to keep producing a top program year after year.
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