SAN ANTONIO — After one of Stanford’s worst halves of the season, coach Tara VanDerveer challenged her team to just compete.
The Cardinal responded.
Lexie Hull had 21 points, Ashten Prechtel scored each of her 16 in the second half and Stanford reached the Final Four by rallying for a 78-63 victory over Louisville on Tuesday night.
“To play a second half and beat them by 27 really says a lot about how hard people were playing,” VanDerveer said. “How much they wanted to do it for each other. They were willing to listen to me, My dad would always say it’s not the start of the race, but the finish.”
Next up for the top-seeded Cardinal is South Carolina on Friday night in a rematch of the 2017 national semifinals. Stanford dropped that one 62-53, ending its previous appearance in the Final Four. UConn and Arizona meet in the other national semifinal.
Stanford (29-2) trailed by 12 midway through the third quarter before scoring 13 consecutive points to take its first lead since early in the game. Prechtel was a big part of that success after she didn’t play in the first half.
“Ashten was a two-way player, her 3 was the shot that just said alright we’re back,” VanDerveer said. “We can win this game. Really exciting to see her play well. She’s been doing great things for us all year. She really picked a great time to shine.”
The teams traded baskets the rest of the period, and No 2 seed Louisville (26-4) was up 50-48 heading into the final quarter.
The Cardinal scored the first 10 points of the fourth to go up 58-50. The run was started by a Prechtel 3-pointer.
“For sure, it was tough not to play in the first half. I was nervous,” Prechtel said. “We didn’t want to go home. Coming out of halftime, there was urgency.”
Louisville coach Jeff Walz said the move to put Prechtel in was the key to Stanford’s win.
“What a great substitution that was. She changed the entire game,” Walz said. “Her 15 minutes, she’s plus-27 on the plus-and-minus side. She won the game for them. … She was remarkable there in the second half.”
Kiana Williams capped the burst with a 3-pointer. The San Antonio native had a rough start to the game, missing 11 of her first 12 shots. She finally got going offensively, hitting four shots in a row to help Stanford build its lead.
“I just had to change my mentality. I was forcing things, I wanted it too bad,” Williams said. “I didn’t let the game come to me. Tara got on me, my coaches got on me, and my teammates picked me up. I just had to change my mentality coming back in the second half.”
Stanford was up 68-60 with just over 3 minutes left when Williams hit a step-back 3 that sealed the victory. She finished with 14 points.
The win moves the Cardinal one step closer to VanDerveer’s first national championship since 1992 and No. 3 overall.
The loss ended the stellar collegiate career of All-America guard Dana Evans. The senior guard scored 24 points for Louisville, but got little help on offence.
“I’m going to go on and enter my name into the WNBA draft,” Evans said. “My senior year was everything I asked for except a national championship.”
Louisville had been playing stifling defence the entire tournament. Coming into Tuesday night’s game, the Cardinals were allowing a tournament-low 46 points a game and teams were shooting just 29.5 per cent against them.
They held Stanford to just 26 points in the first half and led 38-26 thanks to some strong play from Evans, who had 10 points early.
Stanford missed eight of its nine 3-point attempts and was just 10 for 36 from the field (27.8%). Besides misfiring from outside, the Cardinal missed a lot of easy lay-ins as well.
“Honestly, I didn’t recognize the people in the jerseys in the first half. We were taking a lot of bad shots,” VanDerveer said. “Weren’t taking care of the ball. I told them, don’t worry about winning, compete, be aggressive. We weren’t aggressive enough.”
The Cardinal got going in the second half and made six of their final eight 3-point attempts.
The postgame press conference was interrupted for several minutes by a fire alarm at the Alamodome. The culprit was a hotdog bun that was left in a warmer and started smoking, said Eric Blockie, an event manager at the building. “It was quickly contained but it had already set off the alarm,” Blockie said.
VanDerveer was among 12 people named to the FIBA Hall of Fame Class of 2020. The announcement of the class was delayed a year because of the coronavirus pandemic. VanDerveer helped lead the U.S. to a gold medal at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. That started the current run the Americans are on of six consecutive gold medals at the Olympics. There will be a digital ceremony on June 18 to honour the Class of 2020, and the Class of 2021 which will be announced on Thursday.