Tara VanDerveer's relentless optimism vanished during her Stanford basketball team's opening practice in October.
She called her sister, Heidi, and offered an anguished initial reaction, saying: "I'm having a nervous breakdown."
This was before her assistant coach, Amy Tucker, walked into the office. "She said to me, 'We'll be lucky if we're a .500 team,' " VanDerveer recalled.
"Over my dead body," she said.
Six months later, VanDerveer was still standing. Only she was dripping wet and cutting down the net, taking part in the celebration of third-ranked Stanford's 78-62 victory over No. 15 Western Kentucky in the NCAA championship game Sunday before 12,072 at the Sports Arena.
The title is the second in the last three years for the Cardinal, which has reached the Final Four three consecutive years.
Almost no one had anticipated a Western Kentucky-Stanford final. The Hilltoppers (27-8) came through the rugged Mideast Region and upset defending national champion Tennessee and No. 8-ranked Maryland.
"It was a dream come true to get here," senior guard Kim Pehlke of Western Kentucky said. "After we lost all of those games early, I didn't think we'd even get here."
After losing three starters from last season's team, Stanford (30-3) was not expected to be back in the Final Four so soon, much less win the 1992 national championship. But junior center Val Whiting, who was on the championship team in 1990, never accepted the concept of not being ready to win it all this season.
"I never heard about that rebuilding thing," said Whiting, who had 16 points and 13 rebounds Sunday. "That must have been something between the coaches and the press."
VanDerveer never mentioned the rebuilding "thing" to her players. She and the coaches slowly gained confidence in this year's team, which helped speed the process with an early-season victory over Tennessee, then ranked No. 1.
What also made a big difference was VanDerveer's second call after talking to her sister after that first practice. She summoned point guard Molly Goodenbour to her office.
Goodenbour was going to step up and take the place of All-American point guard Sonia Henning. For the last two seasons, Goodenbour sat on the bench, playing behind Jennifer Azzi and Henning.
"Molly and I always kind of had a joke through the whole season," forward Chris MacMurdo said. "We were kind of the scab team--always playing behind Katy Steding and Jennifer and Sonia. It was really hard, but we really learned a lot. This year it was our turn to step up."
MacMurdo, who struggled offensively during the NCAA tournament, managed to get back in the flow at the defensive end Sunday, finishing with 11 rebounds. Freshman forward Rachel Hemmer came back from her lackluster performance (four points) against Virginia in the semifinals to assist MacMurdo in shutting off Western Kentucky's inside game, getting team highs of 15 rebounds and 18 points.
Goodenbour made only one of seven three-point attempts, but scored 12 points and added six assists. She extended her NCAA tournament record for three-pointers made to 18 and was voted the tournament's MVP.
VanDerveer joked about that second accomplishment. She was asked whether she would have believed it possible a year ago.
"Oh, no," VanDerveer said, laughing. "If someone had told me last year that Molly Goodenbour would be the MVP of the national tournament. Oh, my God!"
Said Goodenbour, standing several feet away: "I heard that."
VanDerveer: "Wouldn't you have agreed?"
Goodenbour: "I wouldn't have thought that, either."
The Cardinal didn't really need Goodenbour's outside game, although she and shooting guard Christy Hedgpeth combined for 29 points. Hemmer, Whiting and MacMurdo were able to take advantage of the Hilltoppers' inability to box out under the basket.
But Western Kentucky, which had prevailed in a draining, lengthy semifinal against Southwest Missouri State, was troubled by its offensive shortcomings. The Hilltoppers shot only 29.6%--worst ever in a championship--and Pehlke was visibly fatigued before the end of the first half.
"I began to feel tired with about five to seven minutes left," said Pehlke, who finished with 16 points. "I just didn't have my legs. I'm sure I could have shot better if I had my legs under me."