Tara VanDerveer, former star Jennifer Azzi take NCAA stage

Mar 19, 2016 - 12:26 AM STANFORD, Calif. (AP) At 3:30 a.m. on a brutally cold morning while leaving the Ukraine, her U.S. teammates already on the bus outside the hotel, Jennifer Azzi stopped for a group of begging, poverty-stricken elderly women and handed out all of her remaining currency and her extra clothes.

Moments later, the rest of the Americans stepped back off the bus and followed suit.

''Everyone, all the players, all the coaches, just kind of walked by them except for Jennifer,'' Hall of Fame Stanford coach and then-U.S. coach Tara VanDerveer recalled Friday. ''She's really a genuine, really special person. ... Jennifer thinks of other people a lot.''

That moment from early 1996 when she was coaching Azzi on the Olympic team that went on to win gold that summer in Atlanta is still so vivid for VanDerveer. She coached Azzi's All-American career on The Farm, too.

On Saturday, VanDerveer will coach the fourth-seeded Cardinal (24-7) against Azzi's upstart West Coast Conference tournament champion San Francisco squad (21-11) in the Lexington Regional. It's the Dons' first NCAA berth since 1997.

''Jennifer was for Stanford women's basketball what Steph Curry is for the Warriors,'' VanDerveer said Friday, sitting in her office conference room watching the women's tournament and reflecting on Azzi's time on campus. ''I think that in some ways that that team was kind of the original, `Wake up, here's women's basketball.' But we've got to beat her. We've got to win.''

USF's Kalyn Simon hit a half-court shot ala Curry to get practice started at Maples Pavilion.

''I'm trying not to kind of do the down memory lane at the moment,'' Azzi said.

No. 5 seed Miami (24-8) takes on 12th-seeded South Dakota State (26-6) in the first game Saturday afternoon.

VanDerveer recruited sixth-year USF coach Azzi ''very hard,'' as in she and her staff making 20 total trips to the Knoxville, Tennessee, area pursuing Azzi back before recruiting limits were put in place.

''I wondered, `Is this player really worth it?''' VanDerveer said. ''She put Stanford basketball on the map, with her great teammates. She didn't have the same role on the Olympic team that she did at Stanford, where she was a starter and a star. She came off the bench for us. People gave her some, `How come you're not playing more, starting?' She's like, `I'm going to win the same gold medal.' Honestly, I can't think of a bad day coaching Jennifer.''

There was the day Azzi had a triple-double for the Cardinal but they lost the game and she was ''beside herself upset, `We need to run more sprints, Tara, we need to work harder,''' VanDerveer recalled her saying, along with Azzi's request to come rebound for her that Sunday.

Another time, even though the coach was so ill she was throwing up, VanDerveer came and rebounded for Azzi - who always had to make 8 of 10 shots from every spot.

''So, this one time she made seven, I go, `I think that was eight,' she goes, `Nope, that was seven,''' VanDerveer said. ''I'm like, `Come on, move on to the next spot.'''

Both women have helped make each other better. Azzi learned plenty along the way from VanDerveer, who is 23 wins from joining former Tennessee coach Pat Summitt as the only women's coaches with 1,000 career victories.

''Tomorrow is going to be very emotional. I think I just need to accept that it's going to be,'' Azzi said. ''It's very surreal coming back to Stanford. I'm so proud of the team that I'm coaching.''

The Cardinal are coming off a rare first-round loss in the Pac-12 tournament.

VanDerveer has shared Azzi stories at times.

''She's told us about times when Jennifer Azzi twisted her ankle and would stay up all night icing it so she could play the next day,'' guard Brittany McPhee said.


When Miami lost to Iowa last March for a berth in the Sweet 16, Jessica Thomas had already run for the tunnel when coach Katie Meier pulled her star player back to the Hawkeyes' rockin' home court to watch the opponent celebrate. That heartbreak and defeat is largely what has fueled the Hurricanes to take a bigger step this time around.

''We learn way more from losses and we take moments like that and that just drives us,'' Meier said. ''The team left and I grabbed her back, I yanked her back onto the court and said, `You stand here and watch this.'''

Meier compared the way South Dakota State's post players spread the floor to the Netherlands team Miami faced during its foreign tour last year.

''That's pretty cool she compared us to them,'' said Jackrabbits sophomore guard and leading scorer Macy Miller, averaging 15.3 points per game. ''I haven't heard that one before.''

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