STANFORD, Calif. -- Chiney Ogwumike has carried the Stanford program for the past two years. On Tuesday night at Maples Pavilion, her teammates carried her to the Final Four one more time.
Five Cardinal players scored in double figures in a stomach-churner of a game in which every one of those points mattered as the Cardinal hung on for a 74-65 win over fourth-seeded North Carolina.
Why are the Cardinal headed to Nashville for their sixth Final Four appearance in seven years and 12th overall when instead they could easily have been salving some pretty painful wounds?
"Heart. Heart," Ogwumike said. "People were making plays based on heart. It wasn't the perfectly executed play. It was the play you wanted to make because you played with your heart."
And it can be argued that no one's ticker was bigger than that of Mikaela Rue, the fifth-year senior who said she had her sights set on winning this game from the moment she found out Stanford would be hosting the regional.
Ruef had the game of her career. She finished with a career-high 17 points. She hit three 3-pointers, having hit only two all season coming in. She pulled down nine rebounds, dished three assists. And she was named the regional's most outstanding player.
"It was by far her best game in a Stanford uniform," Cardinal coach Tara VanDerveer said after the game. "Mikaela downplays the work she has put in to do what she did tonight. People have played soft on her because of Chiney's incredible ability, and she was ready for it."
Ruef has always been Stanford's comedian, but on Tuesday she was its savior.
True to form, Ruef entered the postgame news conference wearing her new "Regional Champions" hat backward and off to the side with the piece of net she cut sticking straight up in the air from her forehead.
She joked that she was afraid she was going to "say something stupid" on the dais and then admitted she was thinking about her grandparents.
"They have been coming to watch my games for five years, even in my freshman year when I would sit at the very end of the bench and, as Tara would say, hug the water cooler," Ruef said. "My grandparents are the reason why I started playing basketball to begin with. To be able to play the regional championship, to go to the Final Four in front of them with them cheering is the most amazing feeling ever. I'm just so happy, and happy is not enough, it's more than that."
Ruef was not the only Stanford player feeling the surge of inspiration.
Junior point guard Amber Orrange kept Stanford in the game in the early going, when North Carolina was raining down 3-pointers and taking a 22-9 lead in the first seven minutes. Orrange finished with 14 points, 12 of them in the first half.
Bonnie Samuelson, who doesn't look like she'd be built for this kind of physical game, was as tough as she needed to be, with 13 points, including three big 3-pointers, and four defensive rebounds.
Freshman Lili Thompson had another strong defensive game, this time on North Carolina wing Diamond DeShields -- who finished with 13 points on 5-of-15 shooting playing on a sprained ankle -- and contributed 10 points, including a pair of jumpers in the final three minutes that helped Stanford put the game away.