MANHATTAN, Kan. -- Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer has been diplomatic about this all along. The Cardinal have known the entire season they wouldn't get to host the NCAA tournament because their home would be the site of the Pac-12 gymnastics championship, held Saturday at Maples Pavilion. No. 2 seed notwithstanding, the Cardinal would be on the road to start the Big Dance.
And for a while Saturday, it looked as if it was going to be a pretty short trip for Stanford. New Mexico State took the Western Athletic Conference regular-season and tournament titles. The Aggies had won 17 games in a row coming into the NCAA tournament. And New Mexico State coach Mark Trakh had gone against Stanford 17 previous times during his tenures at Pepperdine (1993-2004) and Southern California (2004-2009).
He beat the Cardinal only once, while with the Trojans in 2008. But he came close to making it twice Saturday, with the Aggies leading after the first, second and third quarters.
Then Stanford rallied in the fourth quarter and won 72-64. The Cardinal will face No. 7 seed Kansas State, which ended another long winning streak, 22 in a row by Missouri Valley champion Drake. The Wildcats prevailed 67-54 over the Bulldogs and now get a chance to advance to the Sweet 16 on their home court in Bramlage Coliseum.
It really shouldn't be like this. Stanford went 28-5 overall and finished tied for second in the Pac-12 at 15-3. The Cardinal won the league-tournament title game over regular-season champ Oregon State.
K-State was 23-10 overall and 11-7 (fourth) in the Big 12, losing in the conference tournament semifinals to Baylor.
The Cardinal should be hosting this game; their results earned it. But it didn't work out that way, and VanDerveer has basically said, "Let's just play the games; who cares where they are?"
It's the right attitude to have, of course. Even though one could argue the Cardinal got inexplicably mistreated by the selection committee, being sent to Kansas for early-round games and placed in the regional in Lexington, Kentucky, rather than the nearby Stockton Regional.
But Stanford has had a "let's not get rattled" approach to things this season. Three days after the big celebration of VanDerveer's 1,000th career victory in February, the Cardinal were upset at home by UCLA.
Disappointing as that was, though, Stanford just recommitted. The Cardinal have lost just once since, 50-47 at Oregon State, and now have to get past one more obstacle to make it to at least the Sweet 16 for the 24th time.
But can Kansas State do to Stanford what it did to Drake? That could be tough. Drake is an undersized squad that relies on motion offense and strong shooting. But the Bulldogs were smaller than usual Saturday, with 6-foot-2 post player Becca Jonas sidelined because of a knee injury. She tried to play, but was in for just 3 minutes before it was obvious she couldn't continue.
This made it easier for the Wildcats to take advantage of their size, especially 6-5 center Breanna Lewis. She finished with 23 points and 11 rebounds. Add in fellow senior Kindred Wesemann's 16 points at guard, and it was too much for Drake.
The Bulldogs were back in the tournament for the first time since 2007 and were the first team ever to go undefeated in MVC play -- something Jackie Stiles' Missouri State teams didn't even do. Drake's Lizzy Wendell, who won the Jackie Stiles award this year as the league's top player, finished her career Saturday with 17 points. Caitlin Ingle, who is the conference career assists leader, had seven dishes in her final game.
"I am really proud of our senior class for taking us on this amazing journey this season," Drake coach Jennie Baranczyk said. "I wish that we could have done a little bit more today."
So while the gritty underdogs go home, the Cardinal and the Wildcats will battle Monday. Kansas State has been to the regional semifinals three times: in 1982 and '83 under coach Lynn Hickey, and in 2002 under Deb Patterson.
Jeff Mittie took over at K-State in 2014-15 after 15 seasons at TCU, where his teams made nine NCAA tournament appearances.
To get K-State back to the Sweet 16 for the first time in 15 years, Mittie will need to figure out how to beat a Stanford squad that has size, experience and poise. As bad as things looked for the Cardinal when they trailed 49-48 after three periods, they didn't lose their cool.
"I think we keep our composure well," said Stanford senior Karlie Samuelson, who had 17 points and made 5 of 9 3-pointers. "We keep our heads in the game. I think there's a difference between feeling panicked and having a sense of urgency. We always know we can come back, so just keep playing hard."
In the fourth quarter, Stanford's Brittany McPhee scored nine of her 16 points, and Alanna Smith had nine of her 19. Erica McCall had just nine points overall, but she grabbed six of her 12 rebounds in the final period.
McCall, Smith and Kaylee Johnson are all 6-foot-3, so Stanford has more size to try to stop Lewis. That said, Lewis will have the home crowd behind her.
"I feel like playing Stanford will be more like Big 12 play, even more physical than [Saturday]," Lewis said. "There are going to be people pushing on me constantly, so I have to be prepared to stand my ground.
"It feels great to be in Bramlage with this environment. We're embracing that, and I'm just making sure I give it all I've got."