The approximate price tag: $40,000.
Injuries to a pair of teammates opened up one the program’s 15 scholarships to Ruef after all, and she has gone from the end of the bench as a freshman to unlikely Stanford Regional MVP to help lead the Cardinal back to the Final Four after last season’s disappointing miss.
Her voice hoarse and a backward Final Four hat on her head, Ruef realized after Tuesday’s win over North Carolina that it’s been quite a journey from her days “hugging the water cooler” as coach Tara VanDerveer referred to her old sideline seat.
“Happy is not happy enough,” Ruef said. “It’s more than that.”
Ruef’s rise to NCAA Tournament star has been a surprising one, especially since there were questions about whether she would return this season. Stanford (33-3) looks to snap defending champion Connecticut’s 44-game winning streak in the national semifinals Sunday in Nashville, Tenn.
In a win against Penn State in the regional semifinals, Ruef recovered from getting poked in the eye early to contribute 11 points, 13 rebounds, five assists and two steals. She topped that performance with a career-high 17 points in Tuesday night’s 74-65 victory over North Carolina, knocking down three 3-pointers after coming into the game 7-for-51 on 3s in 131 career games for the Cardinal.
“It was by far her best game ever putting on a Stanford uniform,” VanDerveer said. “Mikaela downplays how much work she put into doing what she did.”
Ruef sure is taking pressure off All-American Chiney Ogwumike, just as VanDerveer has called for the supporting cast to do all season.
“Ruef has become, I think, a much, much better compliment to Chiney,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said.
Throughout the season, Ruef has been working 16 to 20 hours a week as a project engineer for Preston Pipelines. She was at 30 hours during the summer.
“I can’t explain it, but somehow everything seems to work out in my favor,” Ruef said. “It helped me grow as a person. I wouldn’t recognize myself as a freshman coming in here. I’m a completely different person. I think the job gave me a sense of responsibility. I had to schedule my days, ‘OK, I have to take time to get in the gym and work on my shot, work on my game so that I can put my team in the best position to get back in the Final Four this year.’”
Ruef still felt the sting of the program’s run of five straight Final Four appearances being snapped by Georgia in the 2013 Spokane Regional semifinals.
This time, back at home with the raucous crowd in Maples Pavilion, Ruef’s grandparents — Mike and Jean Mullin — got to watch her shine on the big stage. They’re the ones who bought Ruef her first basketball at age 5 and pushed her to watch UConn. They moved back to California when she was a high school junior and changed the tune to Stanford.
“I’m so happy I was able to play in front of them for five years,” she said. “I wouldn’t have picked up the game if it wasn’t for my grandma.”
Ruef impressed her coaches with her commitment to returning for one last chance at a Final Four, even if it meant paying her own way.
“We knew we didn’t have a scholarship and she knew it, too,” associate coach Amy Tucker said. “She was working that summer and knew she was going to come back and have to pay for it for two quarters. That’s just the way it was going to be because she really wanted to come back. For someone who started on the 15th seat on the bench to now value the experience so much she wanted to pay for it, there’s not a better story of the kid who loves our experience.”