STANFORD, Calif. (AP) -- Tara VanDerveer admittedly had her doubts that this season would end with an NCAA Tournament berth for Stanford, and that's a strange thing to hear from the Hall of Fame coach leading a storied program that regularly plays deep into March.
She even mentioned it to star senior Brittany McPhee.
There were reasons. In late December, the Cardinal fell out of the AP Top-25 poll after a 17-year run in the rankings dating to the 2001 season and 312 consecutive ranked weeks. McPhee had missed nine games with a foot injury.
As VanDerveer's teams tend to do, the Cardinal rallied back in the season's second half. And No. 4 seed Stanford (22-10) is now hosting a first-round matchup of the Lexington Regional on Saturday against familiar foe Gonzaga (27-5).
Some tweaks had to be made to the schedule last minute after some matchups fell through in the summer, meaning Baylor was added.
''We played arguably the toughest schedule that Stanford has ever played,'' VanDerveer said.
In Saturday's first game, fifth-seeded Missouri (24-7) will face No. 12-seed Florida Gulf Coast (30-4), which is riding a 10-game winning streak having won 20 of its last 21.
Stanford hasn't played since a 20-point defeat to Oregon in the Pac-12 tournament final on March 4. More motivation for the Cardinal is the fact Gonzaga won the last meeting, visiting The Farm on Nov. 18, 2016 - the Zags' lone victory over eight games in the series.
''It's nice to say that we've done it. I can certainly now say we can do it again, versus before we're saying we can be the first team to do this,'' Gonzaga coach Lisa Fortier said. ''And it was very exciting for all of us as a coaching staff and definitely one of our highlights for last season, and something that you can kind of talk about in your career. But it's just a new team that we have.''
This is the 31st straight NCAA appearance for the Cardinal, who have a 30-4 NCAA record on their home court in Maples Pavilion.
''They're a different team and we're a different team. We know that we have to play well and I think that they probably know the same thing,'' VanDerveer said. ''In some ways having lost to Gonzaga there are some situations where I think some teams, they look at the seed and they just assume the seed is going to take care of the game and it's not.''
All of the teams here but Missouri took part in the Play4Kay Showcase at Las Vegas in November.
Florida Gulf Coast is plenty familiar with Stanford, too: VanDerveer earned her 900th career victory when the Cardinal beat the Eagles 83-59 in a Thanksgiving tournament at Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, in 2013.
VanDerveer showed FGCU coach Karl Smesko around the arena Friday.
''We played them when she won her 900th game and she was very gracious,'' he said. ''Obviously she's a coaching legend.''
Missouri junior forward Cierra Porter will have big sister Bri cheering her on as their two brothers reached the NCAA Tournament with the Tigers men's team. Bri, the oldest of eight children in the family, is no longer playing after October 2016 surgery for a torn anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee - her latest knee trouble.
''It has been hard not to be a part of it but honestly having my sister on the court it's made the entire process different,'' Bri said while watching her team practice Friday. ''I feel like I'm out there because she is.''
Mizzou won its SEC Tournament opener and earned a third straight NCAA berth, the first time the program has done so since 1984-86, and will try to win at least one game in three straight tournaments for the first time in school history.
The Tigers must be ready to contend with Florida Gulf Coast's perimeter game. The Atlantic Sun Conference champion Eagles will let it fly from deep at every chance and boast the hashtag ''RAININGTHREES'' and have hit 407 of them this season, 17 off Sacramento State's single-season record of 424 set in 2014-15.
Midway through the Eagles' practice, Smesko hollered, ''Who's ready and who's not?'' before his players began firing off 3 after 3 to perfect the signature part of their game.
''We definitely like to shoot 3s. We like to have as many people on the floor as possible that can make them,'' Smesko said. ''We understand what a good 3 is and what a bad 3 is.''
It will be a new challenge for the Tigers' defense.
''We shoot the 3-ball a lot and it fails to compare against how much they shoot it,'' Missouri coach Robin Pingeton said. ''They spread you out, hard to guard. They have five kids that are interchangeable in that starting lineup and the kids coming off the bench do a great job, very unselfish, great ball movement, great spacing on offense. It's a completely different look than what we're used to defending.''
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