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Stanford ready to make run at coveted NCAA title

From the moment last season ended in disappointment, Kayla Pedersen and Jeanette Pohlen made it clear their senior seasons at Stanford would be incomplete without an NCAA championship.

They reiterated it Wednesday: Another near miss at a national title won't do for this star tandem in their final shot at winning it all.

The top-seeded Cardinal (33-2) head off to their fourth straight Final Four on Thursday riding a 27-game winning streak and gearing up for an unexpected semifinal matchup Sunday in Indianapolis with No. 2 seed Texas A&M after its upset of Baylor.

"It's incredible to make it to four straight Final Fours, but at the same time we're not satisfied with that," Pedersen said. "I think that determination, that focus that we're going to bring this year and that experience that we've lost a bunch of times in the Final Four, is really going to motivate us for one more game."

Stanford hasn't brought home the title trophy since 1992 despite reaching the NCAA final twice in the program's past three trips to the Final Four. The Cardinal lost the title to Tennessee in 2008 and to Connecticut last year.

Everybody involved insists it's time to finally get over the hump, which likely will mean getting through two-time defending champion UConn for a second time this season.

"Is this team better prepared? Do I have a sense of it? No," coach Tara VanDerveer said of the Cardinal's chances.

Pohlen, the Pac-10 Player of the Year, and Pedersen already have done so much to leave their legacy, like that school-record 63-game home winning streak at Maples Pavilion. They never lost on their home floor for their careers — a mark no other Stanford senior class has accomplished.

It was Pohlen's coast-to-coast drive for the winning layup against Xavier during last season's special run that sent Stanford back to the Final Four.

Now, it's their final try on the biggest stage.

"For Kayla and I and the other seniors, we're very focused coming into this Final Four," Pohlen said. "It's tough making it that far and not coming away with the national championship. I think it's motivating us even more and making us even more excited because we do know this is our last chance at it. We've gone this far. We're just going to give it all we have."

Stanford ended the Huskies' record 90-game winning streak with a thrilling 71-59 victory at Maples Pavilion back on Dec. 30, holding UConn star Maya Moore to 14 points on 5-of-15 shooting. That after UConn rallied from a 20-12 halftime deficit against Stanford to win the national title last April — a result that still stings around Stanford.

Pedersen said after that demoralizing defeat that she didn't want Stanford to be remembered as the team that made it to the last game and never won.

"As a freshman, sitting there with the seniors and hearing them declare their passion, to hear they feel so strongly, you want to help them end their senior year right," said Pac-10 Freshman of the Year Chiney Ogwumike.

VanDerveer, trying to win her third national title in 25 years at Stanford, said the loss inspired her to work even harder than she already does. She took less time off than usual right after last season ended.

"I would love that for our seniors. I would love that for our team," she said about winning a championship at last. "There was one team once, and that was 1990 when we went, and they didn't cut down the net at the regional because they wanted the Final Four net. We want the Final Four net. I look at all the great teams that aren't at the Final Four. I'm proud of our team and I'm excited for our team. We're going to enjoy the whole process. I don't want to be a coach who is all about the end. I want to enjoy the process and I want our team to enjoy the process."

Starting in January, VanDerveer envisioned a matchup with Baylor and 6-foot-8 star Brittney Griner deep in the NCAA tournament, and she started planning for that even then. Assistant Kate Paye recruited a band member named Andrew — "I call him Brittney. I forgot his name," VanDerveer said — to play as Griner in practice.

Now, Stanford instead must prepare to face an athletic, up-tempo Texas A&M team (31-5) that VanDerveer compares to scrappy Arizona State in the Pac-10. These programs have played just once before, and it was 29 years ago even before VanDerveer arrived on The Farm. She was coaching at Ohio State then.

And Aggies versatile All-American Danielle Adams, VanDerveer compares her to Charles Barkley.

VanDerveer knows the 18 turnovers her team committed in its 83-60 victory over Gonzaga in the Spokane Regional final Monday night won't cut it in the Cardinal's next one.

"We might as well just forget about winning a national championship if you can't take care of the ball against Texas A&M," VanDerveer said. "If you don't understand the value of the ball, you might as well just go down there and see the (Indy 500) racetrack and get on the bus and come back. Because that is priority No. 1."