Whenever the term “Code Red” is invoked at Stanford, it’s safe to assume the hospital is in crisis mode.
Except during March Madness, when it’s the Stanford women’s basketball team relying on its rallying cry to advance yet again to the Final Four.
“It’s totally a Stanford player’s tradition,” Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said after Tuesday’s morning practice, with luggage spread out all over Maples Pavilion as the No. 6 Cardinal (32-5) prepared to board a plane for Texas.
Stanford will play in a national semifinal against No. 3 South Carolina (31-4) on Friday at American Airlines Center in Dallas, making its seventh trip to the Final Four in the past decade.
WNBA center Jayne Appel made it this far three times in a row from 2008 to 2010 while at Stanford. During a recent visit, she joined the Stanford circle and brought up the motto as a reminder to the players.
“She told the team about how it’s a phrase that allows the team to really lock in and focus on the goal, which is to win and to get as far as possible,” senior point guard Briana Roberson said.
It’s a phrase conjured multiple times at the NCAA Tournament.
“During timeouts, huddles, even off the court, just reminding ourselves that our level of urgency needs to be at an all-time high,” Roberson said.
The term “Code Red” has been particularly useful for the Cardinal, which trailed at halftime in four of its previous five games, overcoming a 16-point third-quarter deficit in the Elite 8 against No. 2 Notre Dame (33-4).
In that 76-75 victory, senior forward Erica McCall played the entire 40 minutes, senior guard Karlie Samuelson improved her 3-point shooting percentage (which ranks second in the nation), junior guard Brittany McPhee dropped a game-high 27 points, while sophomores Alana Smith and Marta Sniezek came off the bench to make key contributions, with the former scoring the game-winning basket and the latter dishing out a team-high eight assists.
“Code Red is pretty much: by any means necessary,” McCall said. “You gotta get out there and get it done. It’s when we’re down and our backs are against the wall, we say, ‘Hey, Code Red.’ And I think that’s why we stick together, we really just push out there and we get it done.”
“This is a blue-collar team in the proud tradition of Jim Harbaugh,” VanDerveer said. “This is a put on your boots, put on your hard hat, bring your lunch bucket. This is that kind of team. I have never been any prouder of a team than I am proud of this team, and happy for this team.”
It hasn’t been an easy road for the Cardinal, which will spend its fifth consecutive weekend away from Palo Alto.
That includes an 11-day road trip during the first two weeks of the NCAA Tournament that included the bus breaking down on the way to its second-round game.
“We kind of had to push our way to the game,” McCall said.
To make matters worse, mechanical problems with a charter plane out of Kansas forced the team to stay an extra night in a hotel before flying directly to Kentucky, where it endured finals week, rather than return to campus.
“The reason that it works is because this team and staff get along so well. I mean, we really enjoy being with each other,” VanDerveer said. “It’s fun. I mean, our bus broke down. We laugh and have fun. Just say, ‘Hey, nothing’s going to get us down.’ That’s the kind of team you want to coach.”
“We have a sisterhood that can’t be matched,” McCall said. “Our love for each other keeps us going. When we get down, stay with each other and I think that’s why we’ve been so successful at the tournament.”
The host schools were nice enough to help out with laundry before the players made it back home on Sunday, with a day off Monday before flying off Tuesday.
“It felt good,” Samuelson said of sleeping in her own bed. “My room was messy. I didn’t realize how messy it was when I left it. That was a long road trip.”
“For me, it’s my last two nights in my bed, actually, because I’m graduating,” McCall said. “So it felt amazing just to get in that bed and just be around my teammates at Stanford.”
The past month has felt like an odyssey in the quest for the program’s first national title in a quarter of a century, with 1990 and 1992 the only years noted as “NCAA championships” on the women’s basketball banner at Maples.
Looking ahead, Sunday’s championship game most likely would be against top-ranked UConn (36-0), which is currently on a 111-game winning streak. The last team to beat the Huskies? Stanford in the fall of 2014.
Could this Cardinal squad be the one to dethrone UConn?
“This is a group that I say gets it,” VanDerveer said. “We have great senior leadership on this team. This team is extremely close. They play hard with each other. They’re extremely unselfish. They’re hard-working. They’re in the gym early. They don’t care who gets the credit. They’re very excited for each other. They want to continue playing with each other.
“As the season went on, we just got better and better and/or confident. Different people are stepping up for us. That’s why we’re in the situation we’re in.”
“We love each other,” Samuelson said. “There is something about us, we have no drama. It doesn’t matter who does what, whether it’s Alana, Brit, Bird, Bri, anybody. I mean, I think that’s why we’re doing so well.”
The team chemistry certainly showed in the postgame celebration after clinching a spot in the Final Four for the first time since 2014, with even VanDerveer joining the dance party that ensued.
“It’s pretty funny,” Samuelson said. “We had a dance circle and we’re like, ‘Alright, Tara’ — and she just went for it. I’d give her a B-plus. She’s going to get an A in the Final Four.”
“I think it just shows how much she loves our team,” McCall said. “She’ll do anything for our team, whether it’s dancing, yelling for us, and I think she’s just really excited and it shows how much she really wants to get this win with us.”
“When you say you’re in the dance, you keep on dancing,” VanDerveer said. “So I’ll break out more and more the further we go. I’m not saying they’re going to be any better.”