COLUMBIA -- Tara VanDerveer walked into the South Carolina women's basketball locker room -- a solemn scene after VanDerveer's Stanford team crushed South Carolina, 70-32, in November 2010. South Carolina coach Dawn Staley, a longtime friend and pupil of VanDerveer's, had asked VanDerveer to address the Gamecocks, who aspired to put themselves on Stanford's elite level.
"Stay with it," VanDerveer told USC's players. "Dawn's a great coach. Stick with her."
VanDerveer recalled her message this week, as Stanford prepared to face South Carolina in tonight's NCAA tournament Sweet 16 game at 11:30 p.m. in Fresno, Calif. -- just the third Sweet 16 appearance in USC history.
"Not that they'll remember the conversation, but I wish I hadn't had it now," VanDerveer joked.
Regardless of whether VanDerveer's encouragement, and perhaps that blowout, played some role in sparking the Gamecocks to a 25-9 record this season, they have a chance to demonstrate their progress tonight against their toughest opponent of the season, and its legendary coach.
Stanford (33-1) entered the NCAAs ranked second nationally. The Cardinal has won 30 consecutive games and appeared in the past four Final Fours, including runner-up finishes in 2008 and 2010. VanDerveer, who is in the Basketball Hall of Fame and debuted at Stanford in 1985, is seeking her third national title.
But the Gamecocks, who reached the Sweet 16 in 1990
and the Elite Eight in 2002, insisted they won't be intimidated, despite last season's blowout loss.
"I think we're playing our best basketball of the season," said guard Ieasia Walker. "I'm personally going to use that as motivation, because I don't want to get beat by 30, especially in the NCAA tournament. I think we're a completely different team and it's going to be a much better game."
The matchup is all the more intriguing because of Staley's relationship with VanDerveer, whose younger sister, Heidi, played at the College of Charleston from 1982-86. VanDerveer first coached Staley in the World University Games when Staley played at Virginia from 1988-92. Staley reached three Final Fours at Virginia, and lost to Stanford in the semifinals in 1990 and 1992, as the Cardinal won the national title both times.
Staley and VanDerveer won a gold medal together at the 1996 Olympics, with Staley playing point guard.
"I really was very direct in coaching Dawn," VanDerveer said. "I think she appreciated it. Maybe not at the time. I was very direct, blunt. I just was like, 'No, Dawn we're not doing this. That's not the play we're looking for.' "
But VanDerveer enjoyed coaching Staley, and admired her, because of their shared competitive nature, which formed the foundation of what VanDerveer now calls a "special relationship." During the Olympics, they spent hours playing chess on bus rides and flights.
"She, to this day, will tell you she would win those games, and she never did," VanDerveer said with a laugh.
When Staley thought about taking Temple's head coaching job in 2000, VanDerveer was one of the first people from whom she sought advice. And just like Staley's highly successful college coach, Debbie Ryan, VanDerveer expressed doubts about Staley jumping into coaching. Both women were unsure if Staley knew what she was getting herself into.
"She kind of discouraged me from getting into coaching, for one reason or another," Staley said of VanDerveer. "And I value her opinion. I value her friendship. But I kind of did what I did as a player. I was a rebel about it."
Staley has coached against VanDerveer three times, including a 31-point Stanford win in Staley's first season at USC. In 2007-08, Staley's last year at Temple, the Owls lost by just nine. At VanDerveer's request, Staley spoke to Stanford's players after the game -- a favor VanDerveer would return three years later.
Tonight, the mentor and student, fierce competitors both, meet again in one of USC's most significant games ever -- an emotional experience, in many ways, for Staley.
"I'd much rather be cheering for Tara than actually playing against her," Staley said this week.
"I wish them well. Just not on Saturday night."
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