STANFORD, Calif. – All season long, Hall of Fame coach Tara VanDerveer pushed and challenged her players to do more in support of Chiney Ogwumike. From knocking down 3-pointers on the perimeter, to pounding the boards in the paint and even doing the little things like chasing down loose balls, Ogwumike needed help.
That supporting cast is a big reason Ogwumike and the Cardinal are headed back to the Final Four a year after an early exit in the regional semifinals that served as 12 months of motivation.
Ogwumike had 20 points and 10 rebounds on a night she was far from her top form, and Mikaela Ruef scored a career-high 17 points on the way to regional MVP honors in leading second-seeded Stanford past North Carolina 74-65 Tuesday night.
Music City, here come the Cardinal for the program's 12th Final Four and a rematch with top-seeded Connecticut — winners of 44 straight games, including 76-57 against Stanford on Nov 11.
"Nobody expects us to win and that just fuels us," Ruef said. "We're going to go out and have fun."
They sure had a blast saying goodbye to Maples Pavilion for the season.
In front of a cheering home crowd, Amber Orrange added 14 points and Bonnie Samuelson knocked down three 3-pointers for 13 points off the bench for Stanford (33-3), which had its streak of five straight Final Fours snapped last March.
Since the disappointment of that early exit against Georgia in the Spokane Regional semifinals, Ogwumike, Ruef and their fellow seniors have made it their mission to get back to women's basketball's biggest stage.
"At the beginning of the year when the regional sites came out and I saw they were going to Stanford, I was determined to play here, to win here to go to the Final Four," Ruef said.
When it was decided Tuesday, Stanford's players jumped in delight and quickly pulled on hats and T-shirts and began dancing at center court. They had all earned this moment.
"I have the utmost faith in my teammates," Ogwumike said. "We've had so many people who just wanted to keep this year going. Sometimes people say you can't win only on heart, but tonight I think we did."
Allisha Gray scored 19 points for No. 4 seed North Carolina (27-10), which couldn't pull off a Final Four reunion with Sylvia Hatchell after the coach's season-long battle with leukemia.
"We did some things at the end I wish we could replay," North Carolina associate coach Andrew Calder said. "I'm not going to look back. Having a Hall of Fame coach on the bench could have made a difference."
When Orrange drove for a left-handed layup with 9.6 seconds remaining, Ogwumike went to her knees and pumped her arms. Stanford protected its unbeaten home record with one last memorable win to send Ogwumike, Ruef and the seniors out in style.
"In 40 minutes our team I thought showed great resilience," VanDerveer said. "I'm so proud of how we battled. We didn't go anywhere last year."
Diamond DeShields was limited to 13 points on 5-for-15 shooting for North Carolina, missing all but one of her six 3-point tries.
DeShields played with no signs of injury after the freshman star sprained her right ankle and tweaked her left knee during a semifinal win against South Carolina on Sunday night. She said they'd have to strap her down to keep her off the court for this game.
DeShields, who VanDerveer said wears No. 23 at North Carolina in tribute to Michael Jordan, never found the groove that made her a nemesis for defenses nationwide during a sensational rookie college season.
"I refuse to make excuses. I felt able enough to go out and give it 100 percent," she said. "There were moments where the momentum could have changed for us."
Ogwumike's layup pulled Stanford within 42-41 with 16:09 left, then she drew a foul on Stephanie Mavunga for pushing off moments later and scored again to give the Cardinal their first lead since the opening minute and send the near-capacity crowd into a frenzy.
Stanford freshman Lili Thompson, who shut down Penn State star Maggie Lucas in the semis, flustered DeShields and added 10 points, four rebounds, three assists and two steals.
Stanford hasn't won a national title since 1992. The Cardinal have had their chances, losing to Tennessee in the 2008 championship game and to Connecticut for the 2010 title. Stanford also lost to UConn in the 2009 national semifinals, to Texas A&M in the 2011 semis and Baylor in the same round the following year.
San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh was among those in the roaring crowd.