Brittany McPhee's career-defining performance sends Stanford to its 13th Final Four

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- By the end of her sophomore season at Stanford, let's call it halftime of her time on the court as a collegian, Brittany McPhee was at a crossroads. She played well in spurts her first two seasons. She showed she could hold her own against the best in the country.

What she had not done when she walked off the court after a Sweet 16 win against Notre Dame in 2016, a game in which she did not attempt a shot, was make an imprint that would linger beyond her stay at Stanford.

By halftime of Sunday's regional final at Rupp Arena, No. 2 seed Stanford was at a crossroads. It had played well in spurts against No. 1 Notre Dame. It had survived three rounds of a tournament that has tested favorites.

But it hadn't made the kind of imprint that would linger beyond its stay in Lexington.

A lot of people will remember what happened next. They will remember the part that McPhee played in it.

Some will remember more fondly than others.

"I thought McPhee was fabulous," Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. "She was the difference in the game. We were worried about [Erica] McCall and [Karlie] Samuelson, and McPhee beat us."

Down as many as 16 points in the second half, Stanford rallied for a 76-75 win. For the 13th time in their history, more than any program save Connecticut and Tennessee, the Cardinal are going to the Final Four.

"I thought McPhee was fabulous. She was the difference in the game. We were worried about [Erica] McCall and [Karlie] Samuelson, and McPhee beat us." Irish coach Muffet McGraw on Stanford's Brittany McPhee

And a year after going scoreless in nine minutes against the Fighting Irish in the same arena, McPhee led the way with 27 points, five rebounds, four assists and some much-needed second-half defense against an opponent who appeared destined for her own place in history.

A comeback of this nature against this opponent in this arena was never going to be the work of one person. Stanford fans -- and even just basketball fans who enjoyed a game in which the fourth quarter alone featured six ties and 13 lead changes -- will remember Erica McCall's block on Arike Ogunbowale's shot in the final seconds to preserve the win. They will remember Alanna Smith twice reclaiming the lead with field goals in the final 51 seconds. They will remember Karlie Samuelson because, well, it's always difficult to forget someone who will shoot the ball from lengthy distances that to her are routine.

They should not be able to forget McPhee as the lead architect of it all.

"I'm so proud of the way she played," Samuelson said. "She shot the ball well from 3. She made huge plays down the stretch, being patient with the ball. She stepped up her defense in the second half on Arike, who was playing really well. Just seeing her grow from last year to this year, and to play her best during the tournament."

Stanford tormented Notre Dame from the 3-point line for the second season in a row. The Cardinal hit 12 of 26 shots from long range Sunday, a year after hitting 11 of 20 attempts. Early on, that made Sunday's game a basket-for-basket sprint, with 46 points scored in a first quarter. Samuelson hit the first of the 3-pointers, naturally, but McPhee hit two of her own in the quarter.

That is not a skill McPhee brought with her to Stanford. A prolific scorer who left high school with the second-most points in Washington prep history, the 6-footer was then a post presence. Even at the AAU level, she was mostly a slasher from the wing. As a freshman, she made just six of 31 3-point attempts all season. She made five in Sunday's game alone.

"I always knew I had to practice it and get it as an ability to be a good player -- especially in a league like the Pac-12," McPhee said. "So I've been practicing it since I got to Stanford. The coaches have confidence. I guess it was them talking to me, telling me I can shoot, that helped."

But when Samuelson picked up her second offensive foul barely a minute into the second quarter, Stanford lost the player who stretches defenses and opens space for McPhee, McCall and everyone else. It wasn't a coincidence that came as Notre Dame commenced an 18-0 run, its offense clicking just as smoothly without injured All-American Brianna Turner as it had in the Sweet 16 against Ohio State. By halftime, Notre Dame led 45-31. It was barely still a game.

How then does a team not panic or rush to make up everything at once? McCall said it came down to the bond between players, their trust in each other. Others might prefer a more tangible or schematic assessment, but it was McCall who was there when Stanford rallied from an 18-point deficit at Washington earlier this season in front of a sold-out arena far louder than Rupp. And she was there when Stanford dug out of trouble in the first round against New Mexico State.

"This is the closest team I've ever been on," McCall said. "I'm so blessed to be on this team. That's really the reason why I just don't want to stop playing with them. It's probably my favorite team I've played on in my life. We just love each other so much. We're going to do anything for each other. We're always going to have positive vibes for each other. These are going to be my sisters for life, for sure."

That includes McPhee, in ways that even her "fabulous" statistical line won't reflect.

"Brittany McPhee is a big goofball," McCall said. "She's a ball of energy. You never know what you're going to get with her sometimes, and I think that's what makes her such an amazing person. She's such a ball of energy, you can't help but love her. She's really been a big impact on my life on and off the court, and I'm just super thankful to call her a sister of mine."

And yet belief must also be rooted in something. Stanford had to make plays in order to cut into Notre Dame's lead from 16 points to two at the end of the third quarter. Time and again, it was McPhee in the middle of it. She hit 3-pointers, slalomed and shimmied through defenders to find shooting angles on layups and runners. And after telling her coach at halftime that she wanted to prove herself defensively against Ogunbowale, who lit up the arena with 21 points in the first half, she locked down on a player who had been previously unstoppable.

Ogunbowale scored four points in the second half. McPhee scored 19 points in that span.

Those are the roots of belief that you can come back, not something planted at halftime, but months and years ago.

Without a lot of personnel changes, Stanford has become a much more efficient offensive team this season. It happened because Smith settled in after some growing pains as Stanford's first international player. It happened because Marta Sniezek grew as a distributor who could get them the ball, and Samuelson improved off the dribble. And it happened because McPhee didn't settle for what her first two seasons provided.

"A lot of times with all these players, what you did in high school won't necessarily work at this level," said assistant Kate Paye, who spent long hours working individually with McPhee. "But Britt's a worker. She's very passionate about the game. She loves to play. She really listened and got in the gym. She worked on her ball handling; she worked on her 3-point shot; she worked on her passing skills. She had an opportunity this year and has played really well."

Sunday was a high moment for someone like McCall, a senior who experienced the Final Four as a freshman. When Ogunbowale got the ball off an inbounds play with two seconds remaining, the dribble she took allowed McCall just enough time to react and come in for the block.

But in low moments in life, as might have come if her timing had been off on that final play, McCall knows what she will get when she encounters McPhee. The goofy positivity isn't always what she wants to hear -- or what she thinks she wants to hear. But it usually has the intended effect.

"I know I've got to hype up for Britt because I know she really wants to make me happy," McCall said. "I'm super blessed to have her in my life."

She would have believed that even if McPhee again hadn't taken a shot in a game here against Notre Dame.

But a lot of people will remember that she did.

They will remember that a lot changed in a year for both McPhee and the Cardinal.