April 1, 2014 Updated: April 1, 2014 at 10:44 pm
STANFORD, Calif. — Well after the final buzzer, Chiney 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 one last Final Four she planned for all along, contributing 20 points and 10 rebounds in a night she wasn't at her best as second-seeded Stanford beat North Carolina 74-65 on Tuesday night in the regional final on the Cardinal's home floor.
"We've had so many people who just wanted to keep this year going," Ogwumike said. "Sometimes people say you can't win only on heart, but tonight I think we did."
Mikaela Ruef scored a career-high 17 points on the way to regional MVP honors in front of the cheering Maples Pavilion crowd, Amber Orrange added 14 and Bonnie Samuelson knocked down three 3-pointers for 13 points off the bench for Stanford (33-3), which had its streak of five straight Final Fours snapped last March.
Now, they're headed to Nashville, Tenn., for the program's 12th Final Four.
Since the disappointment of that early exit against Georgia in the Spokane Regional semifinals, Ogwumike, Ruef and their fellow seniors have made it their mission to get back to women's basketball's biggest stage.
"At the beginning of the year when the regional sites came out and I saw they were going to Stanford, I was determined to play here, to win here to go to the Final Four," Ruef said.
All season long, Hall of Fame coach Tara VanDerveer called for more of her players to do their part, and Ogwumike's supporting cast delivered when it mattered most.
When it was decided, Stanford's players jumped in delight and quickly pulled on hats and T-shirts and began dancing at center court.
"I have the utmost faith in my teammates," Ogwumike said.
Allisha Gray scored 19 points for No. 4 seed North Carolina (27-10), which couldn't pull off a Final Four reunion with Sylvia Hatchell after the coach's season-long battle with leukemia.
North Carolina got the ball back 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," North Carolina associate coach Andrew Calder said. "I'm 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.
"In 40 minutes our team I thought showed great resilience," VanDerveer said. "I'm so proud of how we battled. We didn't go anywhere last year."
Samuelson's third 3-pointer of the game capped a 15-2 Stanford run with 13:09 to play that put the Cardinal ahead 48-42 before Danielle Butts' basket ended a 5 1/2-minute scoring drought for North Carolina.
Diamond DeShields was limited to 13 points on 5 for 15 shooting for North Carolina, missing all but one of her six 3-point tries.
DeShields played with no signs of injury after the freshman star sprained her right ankle and tweaked her left knee during a semifinal win against South Carolina on Sunday night. She said they'd have to strap her down to keep her off the court for this game.
DeShields, the one VanDerveer said wears No. 23 at North Carolina for a reason in reference to Michael Jordan, never found the groove that made her a nemesis for defenses nationwide during a sensational rookie college season.
"I refuse to make excuses. I felt able enough to go out and give it 100 percent," she said. "There were moments where the momentum could have changed for us."
Ogwumike's layin pulled Stanford within 42-41 with 16:09 left, then she drew a foul on Stephanie Mavunga for pushing off moments later and scored again to give the Cardinal their first lead since the opening minute and send the near-capacity crowd into a frenzy.
Stanford freshman Lili Thompson, who shut down Penn State star Maggie Lucas in the semis, flustered DeShields and added 10 points, four rebounds, three assists and two steals.
Stanford hasn't won a national title since 1992. The Cardinal have had their 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 Baylor in the same round the following year.
San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh was among those in the roaring crowd.