DALLAS — It hasn’t always been perfect, but Stanford has returned to the Women’s Final Four for the seventh time in the past decade.
It took a rousing comeback Sunday in the regional final to stun second-ranked Notre Dame to reach the national semifinals at the American Airlines Center.
Now Stanford (32-5) has one of its biggest challenges of the season in trying to stop All-American forward A’ja Wilson and third-ranked South Carolina.
Wilson, a 6-foot-5 forward from Hopkins, South Carolina, is the kind of player who attracts defenders.
“She’s obviously one of the greatest players in the nation, there’s no debating that,” Stanford forward Kaylee Johnson said.
“But we have ours here,” she added while pointing at Erica McCall, the Cardinal’s leading scorer at 14.4 points per game.
McCall shook her hand, saying she’s going to help to slow down a talent who averages 17.9 points and 7.4 rebounds a game.
“It is going to all of us talking on the court and figuring out the best way to fluster her,” junior Brittany McPhee added.
Wilson has heard it all before. She doesn’t care what kind of defense the sixth-ranked Cardinal and Hall of Fame coach Tara VanDerveer concoct.
“We’ve seen every kind of defense all season,” she said.
Wilson also had a warning: If Stanford focuses too much on her, watch out for the South Carolina guards.
“In the past, they would play off our point guards because they thought they couldn’t shoot,” Wilson said. “The basketball world has to play” freshman Tyasha Harris. “That takes one defender out of the paint.”
Wilson is the Gamecocks’ only post player, surrounded by capable sidekicks Kaela Davis and Allisha Gray, who also are juniors. Wilson lost her low-post mate when senior center Alaina Coates suffered an ankle injury.
But the four-time Southeastern Conference champion Gamecocks have “never fretted it,” coach Dawn Staley said.
Wilson wouldn’t let them. She has been a divining rod in leading South Carolina to its second Final Four in three seasons. Wilson hasn’t always played nice in marshaling teammates.
“I’m still your friend, I’m not trying to bash you,” she said of her methods. “I’m not trying to be bossy but I want to lead you to a national championship.”
As deeply talented as Wilson is, Stanford won’t walk onto the court intimidated. Not after the highly competitive Pac-12 season during which the Cardinal faced a boatload of big talents.
Kate Paye, who was promoted to associate head coach at the beginning of the season, described Cal’s Kristine Anigwe and Utah’s Emily Potter as the kind of players who prepare a team for the likes of Wilson.
“We’ve had to guard Kelsey Plum,” she added of the Washington guard who was named the AP women’s player of the year Thursday. “At this point, we’ve had to utilize a lot of different game plans.”
Stanford has succeeded as a collective. The Cardinal doesn’t have a bonafide star as in previous seasons with Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike, both No. 1 WNBA draft picks.
“I need more antacid,” VanDerveer joked Thursday.
But VanDerveer has worn a smile much of the topsy-turvy season. She reached the 1,000-victory milestone with a roster she wouldn’t trade for anyone. The success starts with the leadership of seniors Karlie Samuelson, Briana Roberson and McCall.
But the Cardinal has become a challenge to defend because of improved scoring of sophomore Alanna Smith and McPhee. Both employ inside-out games that make them unpredictable.
Stanford had trouble cracking the top 10 much of the season, but moved up by winning 12 of its past 13 games.
“In the preseason, we had moments when everything just clicked, then we’d have moments where no one could shoot, no one can do anything,” McPhee said.
“It all just came together at the right moment.”