Stanford, North Carolina playing for spot in Final Four 

click to enlarge Chiney Ogwumike
  • Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP
  • Stanford forward Chiney Ogwumike, right, joins the rest of the team’s starters during a news conference at the NCAA college basketball tournament on Monday.
Chiney Ogwumike wrote on Stanford’s locker room white board, “3rd round last year.”

As if any of the Cardinal needed the reminder of last season’s frustrating finish.

That early exit in the NCAA Tournament a year ago snapped a streak of five straight Final Fours, and still stings for so many Stanford players and coaches. They all challenged each other to change the culture around the program.

Hall of Fame coach Tara VanDerveer had couches and photos removed from the locker room to instill an improved work-first mentality.

“Last year, when we lost, I had not known anything but the Final Four,” fifth-year senior Mikaela Ruef said Monday. “That hurt a lot because I just figured that we’re definitely going back to the Final Four.”

Now, the second-seeded Cardinal (32-3) are one victory from getting back to women’s basketball’s biggest stage next week in Nashville, Tenn. Stanford will face No. 4 seed North Carolina (27-9) in Tuesday’s regional final on its home court in Maples Pavilion for a Final Four berth.

The young Tar Heels have plenty of their own reasons for wanting to extend the season at least one more game. If North Carolina can reach its first Final Four since 2007, coach Sylvia Hatchell is expected to rejoin them following a season-long fight with leukemia. She recently completed her final round of chemotherapy, is in remission, and doctors have said she should have the strength to travel to the Final Four.

Associate coach Andrew Calder thanked Hatchell first thing for her game plan from afar and thoughtful words after Sunday night’s 65-58 victory against top-seeded South Carolina, “I’m really excited to hear that things are going well for Sylvia,” VanDerveer said of her fellow Hall of Fame coach. “It’s a really difficult situation. Their team is demonstrating great maturity and resilience.”

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