STANFORD — Laughter and good-natured screams echoed from the walls of Stanford’s locker room Thursday morning as preparations for the NCAA tournament were in full swing.
You would never know these were the same women who dropped out of the Pac-12 tournament early a week ago, sent back by UCLA.
Shocked, Stanford needed a serious heart-to-heart conversation to find that joy again. The players and coaching staff sat in a circle after dinner at the Las Vegas hotel and talked about responsibility and what it would take from everyone to make another special march run.
Then they came home to the Bay Area and met again, this time for players only.
“Of course the Pac-12 tournament didn’t end the way we wanted, but we had a great week of training and we’re a very different team than we were a week ago,” senior Hannah Jump said. “We’re all set to bounce back and just have fun, play with a smile, and just play with fun.”
Top-seeded Stanford (28-5) opens its NCAA quest Friday with a matchup against 16th-seeded Sacred Heart (19-13), who defeated Southern 57-47 in a First Four game Wednesday night for its first NCAA victory over school history.
Despite the conference tournament disappointment, Hall of Fame Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer considers the rest her players received a key benefit. She felt they were used up during that entire team meeting.
“What came through, the message from the team was that they are close and committed to each other, and that’s where you want them to be, that they’re going to work hard, that they want to play, play hard.” Van Derveer said. “What I saw more than anything was just, we need a break. I saw this with our Olympic team, maybe people felt a little pressure. I just thought, ‘Let’s just take a break, get away from it all and just say, okay, now we come back with the tournament.'”
Friday night’s second game in the Seattle area at Maples Pavilion will see eighth-seeded Ole Miss (23-8) face No. 9-seeded Gonzaga (28-4). The two coaches know each other well: Lisa Fortier was a Zags assistant when fifth-year Ole Miss coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin served on the Portland staff.
“As soon as the matchup was announced, I texted her and I said, ‘Just super proud of you guys and what you’ve all done,'” McPhee-McCuin said. “So I think first of all there’s an incredible amount of respect that we have for Gonzaga and what they’ve accomplished.”
Gonzaga’s Brynna Maxwell has the second highest 3-point shooting percentage in the country at 49.43%, while Ole Miss has one of the best perimeter defenses.
Runners-up to second-seeded Portland in the West Coast Conference Tournament, the Zags earned their sixth consecutive NCAA Tournament berth under Fortier and are a ninth seed for a second straight year. Gonzaga defeated No. 8 Nebraska last March to reach the second round, before losing on the home floor to top-seeded Louisville.
Ole Miss lost 80-51 to No. 1 South Carolina in the SEC Tournament and faced Pac-12 power Utah. The Rebels are led by Angel Baker’s averages of 15.1 points and 5.5 rebounds.
The team traveled from Oxford, Mississippi, to the coach’s home country of the Bahamas, and this trip west marks the program’s third straight year in postseason play.
“We’re just getting started,” McPhee-McCuin said.
Sacred Heart (19-13), of Fairfield, Connecticut, celebrated Wednesday night and then was first in the movie room on Thursday, ready to continue proving people wrong after a 2-9 start to this season.
“This is clearly the greatest team we’ve ever played against,” said Pioneers coach Jessica Mannetti, whose team will face Cameron Brink and her 111 blocks this season.
Still, Mannetti reminded her team that a No. 16 seed had an unlikely first-round victory before: Coincidentally, Harvard Stanford stunned here 25 years ago.
“She said it was Stanford,” freshman Ny’Ceara Pryor said, “but why not Sacred Heart.”