STANFORD, Calif. — It was a moral victory North Carolina didnt want.
The Tar Heels played spectacular basketball, but came up short in a 74-65 loss to No. 2 seed Stanford at the Stanford Region on Tuesday night. The Tar Heels (27-10) were trying to get to their first Final Four since 2007.
We had some good looks to start the second half, but they didnt go down like they did in the first half, North Carolina associate head coach Andrew Calder said. We had our chances.
North Carolina came out on fire, using the 3-point shot to stun the sellout Maples Pavilion crowd. Allisha Gray scored on a banker for a 7-2 lead and she continued to go off, knocking down a 3-pointer to make it 10-5.
Xylina McDaniel got into the 3-point act, for a 13-7 lead, and Gray went deep for her next trey, a 29-footer from top of the key. Gray, who hit her first six field goal attempts, made another three-pointer for a 19-9 lead, and Brittany Rountrees 3 made it 22-9 with 11 minutes, 51 seconds left in the half.
The crowd didnt affect us, North Carolina guard Diamond DeShields said. We came out with a lot of energy and felt at ease.
The Tar Heels led 36-30 at halftime, but the Cardinal chipped away, finally taking the lead 43-42 on a shot by Chiney Ogwumike with 15:32 to play. Danielle Butts scored on a 15-footer for the Tar Heels, who trailed 48-44.
North Carolina didnt quit, taking a 63-62 lead on a 3-pointer by Jessica Washington with 3:53 to play. Butts scored on a breakaway and North Carolina was down 66-65 with a little more than a minute remaining.
Bonnie Samuelson made two free throws for the Cardinal (33-3), which got two more free throws from Ogwumike with 12 seconds remaining to put the game on ice.
Gray led the Tar Heels with 19 points, but scored just four in the second half.
We should have set more screens for Gray in the second half, Calder said. That was my fault. I wish I had a few things back late in the game I wish I would have done differently.
DeShields had 13 points, the only other Tar Heel in double figures. Stanford won the hard-fought rebound battle 34-32.
Ogwumike, who had just four points at the half, finished with 20 points and 10 rebounds. The Cardinal had four other players in double figures, including a career-high 17 points from senior Mikaela Ruef.
Ruef was the X-factor, Calder said. If she didnt make those shots, wed still be hanging back on Ogwumike.
Well after the final buzzer, Ogwumike darted across the court one last time to find big sister Nneka in the stands for a long celebratory embrace.
Ogwumike is carrying her team to Music City and the one last Final Four she planned for all along.
People were making plays based on heart. It was just a heart game, Ogwumike said. I have the utmost faith in my teammates.
Amber Orrange added 14 points and Bonnie Samuelson knocked down three 3-pointers for 13 points off the bench for Stanford, which had its streak of five straight Final Fours snapped last March.
Since the disappointment of that early exit against Georgia in the Spokane Region semifinals, Ogwumike, Ruef and their fellow seniors have made it their mission to get back to womens basketballs biggest stage.
All season, Hall of Fame coach Tara VanDerveer called for more of her players to do their part, and Ogwumikes supporting cast delivered when it mattered most.
When it was decided, Stanfords players jumped in delight and quickly pulled on hats and T-shirts and began dancing at center court.
In 40 minutes, our team I thought showed great resilience, VanDerveer said.
North Carolina got the ball with 49 seconds left after an offensive foul on Ruef, but Xylina McDaniel missed a layin on the left side and Ruef secured the rebound. Samuelson converted two free throws with 21.1 to go.
We did some things at the end I wish we could replay, Calder said. Im not going to look back. Having a Hall of Fame coach on the bench could have made a difference.
When Orrange drove for a left-handed layin with 9.6 seconds remaining, Ogwumike went to her knees and pumped her arms. Stanford protected its unbeaten home record with one last memorable win to send Ogwumike, Ruef and the seniors out in style.
Stanford hasnt won a national title since 1992. The Cardinal has had chances, losing to Tennessee in the 2008 championship game and to Connecticut for the 2010 title. Stanford also lost to UConn in the 2009 national semifinals, to Texas A&M in the 2011 semis and to Baylor in the same round the following year.
San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh was among those in the roaring crowd.
The Associated Press contributed