With few other viable West Coast options available, VanDerveer was persuaded to do it again but with a different approach. The players won’t stay in their dorm rooms, there will be a generic NCAA court at Maples Pavilion and the second-seeded Cardinal will prepare for Sunday’s Sweet 16 game against No. 3 seed Penn State just like they did on the opening weekend halfway across the country in Ames, Iowa.
“You don’t want your players to feel like this is a home game,” VanDerveer said Wednesday. “It’s not. We’re staying in a hotel just like the other teams are staying in a hotel. We’re going through all the same things like credentials that the other teams do.”
The big difference is the Cardinal (30-3) don’t need to get on a plane to travel and will have thousands of cheering fans on hand to help them get back to the Final Four after having a five-year streak snapped last season.
“We’re just excited to play in Maples,” star forward Chiney Ogwumike said. “It was a great focal point for us in the first and second rounds that we want to get back so bad. The challenge for us as a team is what are we going to do when we’re back? How are we going to approach this game?”
Stanford easily won the first two games of the tournament in Ames, beating South Dakota 81-62 in the opener and then knocking off 10th-seeded Florida State 63-44 in the second round. The Cardinal caught a break when the Seminoles knocked out host Iowa State in the first round, eliminating the hazard of playing a true road game in the tournament.
The Cardinal won all 15 home games this season and are 28-4 at Maples in NCAA Tournament play. They last lost a tournament game at Maples Pavilion in 2007.
“At the end of the day you want to play well in front of your fans,” Ogwumike said. “You don’t want to put pressure on yourself. I think we learned that by watching Iowa State play Florida State. You don’t want to put too much pressure on yourself to win because of the home crowd.”
If the Cardinal are able to beat the Nittany Lions (24-7) on Sunday, they will host the winner of the game between top-seeded South Carolina (29-4) and No. 4 seed North Carolina (26-9) for a berth in the Final Four in Nashville, Tenn.
This is the only regional where all four top seeds advanced to the second weekend, giving the Cardinal a difficult path to navigate if they are to return to the Final Four.
But after three losses in the national semifinals and two championship game defeats during a five-year run, getting back to the Final Four is not enough to satisfy the Cardinal.
“What’s the elephant in the room? We want to win a national championship,” Ogwumike said. “This year we said every drill we’re trying to do at national championship caliber. When you use that language, national championship, that sets your expectations higher.”
The two coaching staffs know each other well as Penn State coach Coquese Washington and one of her assistants have visited VanDerveer at her summer home in Western New York the past two years to talk basketball strategy.
“They’ll probably know what we’re doing pretty well and we’ll probably know what they’re doing pretty well,” VanDerveer said. “It will come down to the players on the court getting the job done.”