Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer recalls how during Dawn Staley's college days at Virginia she wore a rubberband on her right wrist and snapped it each time she committed a turnover.
VanDerveer remembers how much she enjoyed coaching the ultra-competitive Staley on the 1996 U.S. Olympic team that captured gold in Atlanta. VanDerveer always told it straight, and that's what fueled the tough Staley, who grew up honing her game on the playgrounds of Philadelphia.
"When Tara found out we were playing South Carolina, she was ecstatic," sophomore forward Chiney Ogwumike said. "She was like, Yeah, we're playing Dawn Staley's crew!'"
On Saturday night, VanDerveer's top-seeded Cardinal (33-1) will face Staley's No. 5 seed South Carolina team (25-9) in the NCAA tournament's Fresno regional semifinals, with Stanford looking to extend its school-record 30-game winning streak and take another step toward reaching a fifth straight Final Four.
"Coaching Dawn was just awesome. I loved coaching her," VanDerveer said Friday at the Save Mart Center. "She's a competitor more than anything else."
A humble one at that. The Gamecocks played at Stanford last season, and Staley invited VanDerveer to the visiting locker room to give her players a pep talk. And Staley spoke to VanDerveer's players at a 2007 tournament in the U.S. Virgin Islands when Staley was still at Temple.
The Cardinal had just whipped South Carolina 70-32 in November 2010 when Staley asked her former coach to spend a few minutes with the Gamecocks players. VanDerveer also coached Staley assistant Nikki McCray.
"You don't really hear a lot of relationships like that when it comes to different coaches," said Stanford leading scorer Nnemkadi Ogwumike, who averages 21.8 points 10.1 rebounds and is eager to get to Denver and the Final Four in her NCAA tournament farewell tour. "It's nice to see those different types of dynamics. It's really cool. They have a lot of history together."
VanDerveer, Stanford's 26th-year coach, took a year away from the school to coach the U.S. Olympians to their gold medal in '96.
"Tara had a way of looking at basketball and seeing it played a certain way," Staley said, saying she learned from VanDerveer "to be more than just a player and build relationships. You learn all those little intangible things ... that made me one of the best point guards to play the game. Definitely Tara was one of those coaches who was really honest - she'll bring you to tears with her honesty. It fueled me."
Stanford and Staley's Virginia team each reached three straight Final Fours from 1990-92, with the Cardinal beating Staley in the NCAA semifinals on the way to its championships in '90 and '92. VanDerveer's Cardinal haven't won it all since then despite becoming a Final Four regular of late.
Current assistant and former Stanford guard Kate Paye guarded Staley in that 1992 game.
"Those are good years, 90 and 92. Hopefully that's a good omen. Dawn hopes it isn't," said VanDerveer, who cherishes a signed photo Staley gave her from when she was the Americans' flag bearer for the 2004 Athens Games.
The winner Saturday will face either No. 2 Duke faces third-seeded St. John's, who play the first game of the night.
VanDerveer, enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame last year, earned her 797th career victory in that game with South Carolina, then beat former Stanford star and University of San Francisco coach Jennifer Azzi to join the elite 800 wins club shortly thereafter.
Next season, Stanford will travel to South Carolina, where the women's basketball program has become a big hit in Columbia.
"They play much better defense than she did," VanDerveer quipped of these Gamecocks compared to their coach. "Dawn is incredibly competitive, to the point she has amnesia. We used to play chess together and she will say how she beat me, and I'll say, No, Dawn.' Her team is so competitive."
South Carolina has reached its first regional semifinal since 2002, third overall in program history and first under fourth-year coach Staley. The Gamecocks' top three scorers and six players total - including all five current starters - were there that day last season to hear VanDerveer's words.
Not that they remember it much. This group has come so far since then.
"I don't remember much about the game, but we weren't prepared as much as we are now," guard Ieasia Walker said.
Markeshia Grant leads the balanced Gamecocks at 11.0 points, while La'Keisha Sutton averages 10.5 points for a South Carolina team that already pulled off an impressive win over Tennessee.
Staley sported an "I BELIEVE" long sleeve T-shirt on Friday in what has become her team's mantra.
"They've been pretty catchy since we've been having a pretty successful season," Staley said. "We really don't have anything to lose. They're the big dogs, the No. 1 seed. We still have to play the game."
VanDerveer looks at the Gamecocks much like the offensive-oriented Arizona State and California teams the Cardinal face in the Pac-12 Conference.
After traveling East to Norfolk, Va., for the first two rounds of the tournament, the Cardinal are back in familiar territory in California's Central Valley, where they beat Fresno State in this arena on Dec. 4. They're at the same hotel this time.
"This is kind of our second home and we want to come out and play really well here," VanDerveer said. "I think there's a comfort level having been here, been in the locker room, less newness. Whether that translates into wins or translates into more baskets, that's yet to be seen."
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