STANFORD, Calif. -- After coaching 1,000 games at Stanford, Tara VanDerveer knows what she sees and she usually says it out loud.
"This is not maybe our best shooting team, and not our best execution team, but maybe it's just our hungriest team. Who knows?" VanDerveer said. "And the team that learns from losing, from not winning the Pac-12."
VanDerveer is right in that there isn't much customary about this Stanford team. She has no senior starters for the first time in more than a decade. The Cardinal failed to win either the Pac-12 regular season title or the conference tournament for the first time since 2001.
But Stanford chipped away at a 62-54 fourth-quarter deficit Monday night on its home floor against a talented, tough South Dakota State team to come away with a 66-65 win to advance to its ninth straight Sweet 16.
The Cardinal understands how to turn failure into success because they have experienced more failure than most recent Stanford teams. Failure, of course, is a relative term here on The Farm. This is still a very good Stanford team, but maybe not a great one -- at least not yet.
Maybe great is still in the offing, with this win as a springboard. They will certainly find out when they meet up with top-seeded Notre Dame in Lexington this weekend.
But the Cardinal's success this season has been hard-earned. This isn't a team that has to worry about suddenly being in a late-game situation with a lot on the line, or worrying about being in a position that it hadn't been in all season, like in the old days when Cardinal teams were racking up gaudy records and double-digit victory margins.
This team has some grit to it after one of the country's toughest non-conference schedules and a grinding season in the best conference in the nation.
Now, the Cardinal are 26-7 after their heart-pounding win against the Jackrabbits thanks to junior guard Lili Thompson sinking a game-winning free throw to cap a three-point play with 8.2 seconds on the clock. She got to the line after an acrobatic drive through the heart of the lane and the SDSU defense to score and tie the game.
And that came literally seconds after she had missed a 3-pointer from the top of the key.
"We've been hearing it since we grew up, you have to have a short memory," Thompson said. "You can't be at the free throw line and stop to think about the 3 you missed before."
Junior forward Erica McCall, on the other hand, used the memory of a previous disappointment as her winning lesson, blocking a jumper by Jackrabbits guard Macy Miller as time ran out to seal the win.
"I thought about the Arizona State game, and blocking [Quinn] Dornstauder, and we didn't win that game, but I remembered that," McCall said.
"This is not maybe our best shooting team, and not our best execution team, but maybe it's just our hungriest team." Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer
She wrote herself a different ending this time.
The Cardinal were in legitimate trouble against a South Dakota State team that was not remotely intimidated by its own No. 12 seed or the surroundings. The Jackrabbits (27-7) had already played Maryland, Notre Dame and DePaul this season.
They had a game plan to stretch Stanford's defense and make their guards play post defense, and with less than five minutes left in the game, they had an eight-point lead.
But Stanford, one of the top defensive teams in the country this season, found a way to buckle down defensively down the stretch. They did not allow a field goal in the final 4:43 and made up for the fact that they were shooting a "horrendous" free throw percentage by making big plays at big moments.
"I did not want to be in here talking about how we lost because we couldn't make free throws. Yeah, I thought about that," VanDerveer said.
She didn't have to, even despite the fact the Cardinal missed 12 of 22 free throws and were outscored in the paint, off turnovers and in second-chance points.
Because guard Briana Roberson, who played stellar defense down the stretch, hit a 3-pointer with 1:13 to go to pull the Cardinal within 64-63, her only trey of the night.
Because Karlie Samuelson, who finished with nine points on 3-for-10 shooting, came up with a big steal with 39 seconds to go.
Because her team knows how to deal with the struggle and turn it around.
McCall, who sat a big chunk of the third quarter in foul trouble as the Jackrabbits built a lead, admitted she was "a little nervous."
And yet they won.
VanDerveer joked she wishes she could get into the heads of her young players and see what they are thinking as the game is going on. But she would also like to bottle the excitement and the joy of the celebration that followed as well.
"I'm proud of the fight and resilience and grit our team showed," VanDerveer said. "[South Dakota State] really gave us everything and we had to stay in there. Sometimes winning on a night when you don't play well is even more satisfying.
"I can't say it was fun, though."