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Stanford rides luck to beat Xavier and earn a trip to Final Four

SACRAMENTO, Calif -- It's strange for a team with a 33-1 record, a No. 2 ranking and an average margin of victory of 30 points a game to be overlooked. But that's Stanford, a team that has practically been ignored this season.

The Cardinal doesn't have a 75-game winning streak. They don't have orange uniforms. And they don't have a headline-making 6-foot-8 center.

But the Cardinal might have something better.

Luck.

Top-seeded Stanford survived to advance to its third consecutive Final Four on Monday night by beating Xavier on a coast-to-coast buzzer-beater by guard Jeanette Pohlen. That was lucky.

Even more fortunate was the possession that preceded it: when Xavier's Dee Dee Jernigan missed two wide-open layups that would have given the Musketeers the lead in the final seconds.

"We were very lucky," Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said.

Luck is not a bad weapon to add to Stanford's impressive arsenal. It could come in handy if the Cardinal -- as many expect -- face UConn in the national championship game next Tuesday in San Antonio. Though the Huskies are the prohibitive favorite and have been already crowned champions in some quarters, there's a school of thought that Stanford -- the last team to defeat UConn back in April 2008 -- could be the next team to beat the Huskies.

Stanford has the size to match up with UConn underneath. The Cardinal are more athletic than they have been in the past with the development of sophomore forward Nnemkadi Ogwumike. Stanford lost to UConn -- in Connecticut, two days before Christmas -- by a slimmer margin (12 points) than any other opponent. And VanDerveer and Huskies coach Geno Auriemma have battled evenly over the years: their record against each other is 5-5 and a meeting in title game would be the rubber match.

But if Stanford wants to entertain hopes of upending the Goliath of women's basketball, the team has an unpleasant task to tackle: reviewing the first 39-and-a-half minutes of the regional final against Xavier and figuring out how to play better.

For much of Monday's game, Stanford was unimpressive. The Cardinal shot just 35 percent from the floor. At times the players looked tentative and tight. They turned the ball over 12 times. All-America center Jayne Appel fouled out with 3:58 to play. Though the Stanford players had looked forward to battling with Xavier's post players -- 6-5 Amber Harris and 6-6 Ta'Shia Phillips -- they seemed unable to contend with the challenge.

"Their size did to us what our size does to other people," VanDerveer said.

But at crunch time, some key developments went Stanford's way. With a little over a minute to play, freshman center Joslyn Tinkle -- playing in place of Appel -- hooked in a shot that no one expected, tying the game, 51-51. With 27 seconds remaining Kayla Pedersen hit a jumper that rattled around the rim before falling through, again tying the game at 53.

And then Jernigan missed the two uncontested layups. Pedersen rebounded the second, called a time out and Jernigan collapsed in anguish.

"I was too anxious," she said later.

Her coach Kevin McGuff didn't try to sugarcoat how Jernigan will feel in the aftermath. "It's going to be very difficult right now because we had such a great opportunity to win," he said.

The Stanford players, for their part, seemed stunned at the gift. "That's got to be divine intervention," Pedersen said.

VanDerveer disagreed. "I believe God has better things to be doing," said VanDerveer, who is headed to her ninth Final Four as Stanford coach.

God might, but coaches don't. Coaches watch every second of basketball action possible and envision what they would do in a similar situations. So when Oklahoma beat Notre Dame in overtime on Sunday, and Notre Dame tried to stay alive by throwing a long pass that was intercepted, VanDerveer thought about what she would do in the same scenario.

On the way to the bus Monday, she told reserve guard Lindy La Rocque that she would, "give it to a fast guard and let them go to the basket."

When Pederson called the time out, assistant coach Amy Tucker diagrammed a play. Arco Arena was loud -- with tense and vocal Stanford fans that had made the 125-mile drive. Roslyn Gold-Onwude couldn't hear the play in the huddle so VanDerveer told her to just stay out of the way. Tucker reminded Pohlen -- who has developed into a reliable point guard in the past two years -- that four seconds is a long time.

"I told her that about eight times," Tucker said.

Still, Pohlen seemed confused as to whether she should take a time out at midcourt.

"No, take it to the basket," VanDerveer said.

And she did. Xavier didn't want to foul her so Pohlen had incredible space to work with. It all happened so quick that Ogwumike felt paralyzed as she watched.

"It's exciting for the viewers," she said, "but for the players it's stroke-worthy."

It was so quick that Pohlen can't remember the details. "It's kind of a blur to be honest," she said

The ball left her hand, the buzzer sounded and the Cardinal won 55-53. Stanford had only one other single digit victory this season -- a four-point win at UCLA. In this tournament, their victories have come by 32, 29 and 37 points.

"We didn't want to create a close game so that we would be challenged," Pedersen said. "But it happened. And now we have this confidence that we can finish these game. And we'll be stronger because of it."

Stanford heads to San Antonio feeling strong. And very, very lucky.

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