STANFORD -- The Stanford women's basketball team is full of nice young women.
Are they too nice to win a national championship?
No, said forward Mikaela Ruef, one of the roster's tougher members. No. The answer is no. Got that? No.
"We can handle the physical contact," Ruef said this week. "We're not a bunch of softies."
Except, yes, maybe they are too nice. If only in the intellectual sense. Yes.
"I don't think it's fair for the game to be more physical than it was today," said Chiney Ogwumike, the Cardinal's best player, following Monday's rugged victory over North Carolina that sent Stanford to this weekend's Final Four in Nashville.
"I don't think that's the way the game should be played," Ogwumike asserted later when asked specifically about the way Carolina's players had pounded and thrown elbows beneath the basket in an obvious attempt to intimidate and stifle her. "But if you want to do that and turn it into a street fight, we can push through that."
Once more, though, we're going to find out how far that push goes.
Something has been holding the Cardinal back from its ultimate goal. And it's not basketball talent. Stanford has reached the Final Four, the college game's plateau of excellence, in six of the last seven seasons. That is a remarkable record for coach Tara VanDerveer and her team. However, on their last five trips to the event, they have been unable to climb the ultimate ledge above that plateau and claim the NCAA title. The last time Stanford won it was in March 1992, the same month Ogwumike was born.
This is the eternal Cardinal conundrum: Should VanDerveer and her players be praised and applauded for getting so far so frequently? Or should they be jabbed and disparaged for failing to earn the biggest trophy?
The answer is both. That's an honest assessment. It's the exact assessment you would make if the Stanford men's basketball team were in the same situation.
Check the calendar. This is 2014. We are well past the point where female athletes should be judged differently than male athletes because women's sports have not been around as long and girls might cry if you rip their performances. Two months ago at the Winter Olympics, the USA women's hockey team blew a two-goal lead in the final minutes against Canada and lost a gold medal in overtime. Afterward, the word "choke" was uttered freely. No one blinked. For female sports, that was progress.
Stanford has not choked during its last five Final Four trips. Stanford has been defeated -- twice by Connecticut, once each by Tennessee, Texas A&M and Baylor. The most bitter loss was probably in the 2011 semifinals. A favored Stanford team lost to A&M in a 63-62 nail-biter in which the teams traded baskets and great plays almost to the final buzzer. But with seconds left, Texas A&M stole a Stanford inbound pass to clinch victory, capping off a defensive-oriented contest variously described as "ugly" or "chippy" or "scrappy" or the standard "physical."
Which, of course, brings us back to that word.
Is Stanford just too nice to win a Final Four game like that, lacking just enough of an edge to make it happen? North Carolina's players seemed to hint as much last Monday, even in defeat. The Tar Heels wrinkled their noses at the Cardinal players' suggestions that the regional championship contest had been overly physical.
"We play in the ACC," said Carolina forward Xylina McDaniel, referring to the Atlantic Coast Conference. "It wasn't really a physical game to us. It might have been to them, but not to us. We're used to it."
Stanford's program has gathered a local following because the young women on the roster are invariably interesting and generous human beings, molded by VanDerveer's strong community-outreach requisites. The ebullient Ogwumike has earned viral video fame for her YouTube song/rap that embraces Stanford's "nerd" image with lyrics such as: "No reason to be stressed, we 'bout to ace this test."
Cute. Appealing. But can a team be too warmhearted for its own good at crunchtime?
"I never knew that was a thing," Ruef said before leaving for Nashville. "But apparently it is. Tara likes to say we're not 'those nice girls from Stanford' anymore.' "
So which one word best describes Stanford going into Sunday's semifinal game?
"Hungry," said Ogwumike. "That's the word for us. Hungry."
The Cardinal players had better be ravenous. Their opponent will be their old pals from Connecticut. The Huskies are undefeated and own a 19-point victory over Stanford in November. Another unbeaten team, Notre Dame, faces Maryland in the other semifinal. Everyone expects a Connecticut-Notre Dame championship game. Stanford might have to beat both to win the title.
"We've got to be party crashers," VanDerveer said.
That includes smashing furniture at the party, if necessary. Stanford's football players have proved they can become street fighters in nerd glasses. The Cardinal hoop women are overdue to conduct their own such successful experiment. And be savagely nice about it.