BERKELEY, Calif. (AP) — Jayne Appel and her Stanford teammates cruised into Haas Pavilion on Friday morning after a picturesque 45-minute drive across the Bay Bridge. The arena will be packed with Cardinal fans when Stanford takes on Ohio State in perhaps the NCAA regional semifinals’ most intriguing matchup.
But this is hardly home sweet home for Stanford — and familiarity isn’t necessarily a good thing for Appel and the second-seeded Cardinal (31-4).
Stanford has lost enough big games in friendly confines over the past few years to make the Cardinal positively allergic to any notions of a homecourt advantage when they meet the third-seeded Buckeyes on Saturday night in the Berkeley Regional, which fields three schools from the upper Midwest and the not-so-comfortable Cardinal.
“I don’t think we’re counting on any points or any extra advantage because we’re so close to home,” said Appel, the Pac-10 player of the year preparing for a matchup with Big Ten player of the year Jantel Lavender. “I would love to say that it’s an advantage, but my freshman year, we lost (an NCAA tournament game) at home, on our own court.”
And it’s also happened several times before. Stanford lost a first-round NCAA game at Maples Pavilion in 1998 to Harvard, still the only 16th seed to win; a second-round game in 2003 to Minnesota, when the Cardinal wasted the chance to make a Final Four run without ever leaving their campus; and another second-round game in 2007, when Florida State upset them 68-61 to end Appel’s freshman season.
One other thing, Appel says: “This was the last place we lost.”
At Haas Pavilion on Jan. 18, California handed the Cardinal their first loss in Berkeley since 1993. Stanford is perfect in its 18 games since, rolling to another Pac-10 title and the tournament crown before routing UC Santa Barbara and San Diego State last weekend.
The Cardinal’s meeting with the Buckeyes carries heavy stakes, with the winner becoming a strong favorite to advance to the Final Four in St. Louis. These top-10 programs are the two highest seeds remaining in the Berkeley Regional, which already has lost top-seeded Duke, defending national champion Tennessee and always-dangerous Texas.
“There’s no Monday night game unless you’re successful Saturday,” Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said. “We’re absolutely thrilled to be here, though. When we played here back in January, I said to our team that this was our goal, to come back to play here at Cal. I think we’ve really improved a lot.”
Stanford hasn’t faced many opponents with the combination of energy, overall talent and momentum possessed by the Buckeyes (29-5), who also won the Big Ten’s regular-season and tournament titles. With 10 straight wins for the inside-out combination of versatile center Lavender and freshman point guard Samantha Prahalis, Ohio State could be peaking at the perfect time for the school’s first Final Four run under coach Jim Foster.
But after first-round NCAA losses in each of the last two years — and a second-round upset loss by a top-seeded Ohio State team three years ago — the Buckeyes realize they have no reason to be confident in their own tournament tenacity. Foster is hoping his team’s relative youth will be an advantage, since his two most important players weren’t around for two of those recent NCAA defeats.
The Buckeyes aren’t worried about Stanford’s short trip to get here, either.
“We’re used to being the team that comes in and doesn’t have as many fans,” said Lavender, who is averaging 21.0 points and 10.8 rebounds. “We just have to come out and play poised, like we always have at road games.”
The teams resemble each other in several aspects. Their offenses flow around stars Appel and Lavender, while point guards Prahalis and Stanford’s Jeannette Pohlen specialize in pushing the ball on fast breaks with their athletic post players.
“We (both) have a very gifted and creative point guard in the open floor,” Foster said. “There is a reward for the post players running, and that is not often the case. The incentive to run is much greater, because the rewards are greater.”
The tournament hasn’t intimidated Prahalis, a Long Island native whose move to Columbus culminated in the Big Ten’s freshman of the year award. Prahalis roomed with Stanford’s Nnemkadi Ogwumike during the USA Basketball Under-18 team’s trip to Argentina last year, so she knows plenty about pressure.
“The first (NCAA) game was a little bit of nervousness, (but) you have to play with an attitude — not being cocky, but just a winning attitude,” said Prahalis, who averaged 10 points and 5.8 assists. “I like to play up and down, and I think it’s going to be a good matchup because we like to run, and they like to run.”
The coaching matchup also is intriguing because Foster has an enduring friendship with VanDerveer, who won 110 games in five seasons as Ohio State’s coach from 1980-85 before taking the Stanford job. Foster and his wife have visited VanDerveer at her offseason vacation home, and they’ve worked together on committees for USA Basketball.
“Tara is one of the most interesting people I know,” Foster said. “She’s very cerebral, and we have some interesting discussions about a wide variety of topics, far removed from basketball.”