After earning an all-expense-paid trip to Minneapolis this week by virtue of its win over Texas Sunday night, Stanford now finds itself on the cusp of Bay Area college basketball immortality.
The Cardinal head to the Final Four knowing they’re just two wins away from a second straight national championship.
If Tara VanDerveer’s squad can survive a battle against Connecticut and then either top-ranked South Carolina or Louisville, it would join the mid-century University of San Francisco men as the Bay Area’s only back-to-back NCAA Division I basketball champs.
For those needing a quick history lesson or merely a reminder, USF once represented basketball royalty. And more. The Bill Russell-era Dons won NCAA titles in 1955 and ’56 while leading the nation in nearly everything, including hyperbole. USF’s path to a second consecutive NCAA title was dubbed “the story of the century” as the Dons won a record 60 straight games and recorded the first unbeaten season in history while being led by Russell, who many called “The Babe Ruth of college basketball .”
A championship parade down Market Street in 1956 seemed impressive enough, but Russell, who would go on to lead the Boston Celtics to 11 NBA championships, probably knew bigger things were in store for him after USF’s second NCAA championship.
“I played on the greatest team in the world,” Russell matter-of-factly told reporters after the Dons’ 83-71 title-clinching win over Iowa in the 1956 final. “The wheels kept turning and the band played on.”
No Bay Area team since has hit the high notes like that in consecutive seasons – a couple came close, though.
There have been three subsequent NCAA championship teams here since the days of the Dons running roughshod over teams – the Cal men in 1959 and VanDerveer’s Stanford teams in 1990 and ’92. But none of the three teams could cash in a second straight title.
Cal followed up its only men’s title by reaching the NCAA title game the following year, but lost to Ohio State at the Cow Palace.
The closest the Stanford women came to a back-to-back title under VanDerveer was in 1991 when the Cardinal was knocked out by eventual champion Tennessee, 68-60, in the Final Four in New Orleans.
In addition to trying to match USF’s feat, Stanford is a pair of wins away from becoming the first women’s team other than Connecticut to repeat as national champs since Tennessee (2007 and ’08).
As noted by many over the years, repeating as champions is usually much more difficult than winning the first one. Stanford’s Haley Jones, the star in last year’s championship run, said the team has embraced the idea of trying to defend its championship this year.
“I think having that target on our back all season has led to really competitive practices, competitive scrimmages, whatever it may be, being ultracompetitive in games, being gritty,” Jones said Sunday night. “I think we know what it takes to get there. But we’re going to have to work twice as hard because everybody’s coming after us.”
Beginning Friday, the Cardinal get a second chance to take home the trophy as they embark on the school’s 15th all-time trip to the Final Four after dispatching No. 2-seeded Texas, 59-50 in the Spokane Regional championship Sunday night.
“It’s crazy to say this but you’re always happy to go to the Final Four, but sometimes you’re like really happy. And I’m like really happy,” VanDerveer said after Lexi Hull (20 points), Jones (18 points, 12 rebounds) and Cameron Brink (10 third-quarter points, six blocked shots) helped Stanford keep the nation’s longest winning streak alive at 24 in a row.
Stanford (32-3) hasn’t lost a game since losing to No. 1 ranked South Carolina on Dec. 21. And, after exacting revenge against Texas for an early-season loss to the Longhorns, the Cardinal could get another shot at redemption. If both Stanford and South Carolina win on Friday, the two powerhouses would meet Sunday with the national title on the line.
At the risk of getting too carried away with the numbers, we must also recognize that winning NCAA championships has become second nature at Stanford.
When VanDerveer’s squad won the trophy by beating Arizona last season, it extended the school’s ongoing streak of earning at least one NCAA title to an astounding 45 consecutive years. Last year, Stanford’s men’s gymnastics team and its synchronized swimming team joined the women’s basketball team in earning NCAA championships.
Now, Stanford is one great weekend in Minneapolis away from owning an NCAA championship for the 46th year in a row.