STANFORD -- Redshirt junior Mikaela Ruef didn't cave in last month in her first start at Stanford.
The 6-foot-3 Ohioan had 12 rebounds in the Cardinal's stunning 71-69 victory over center Brittany Griner and then-No. 1 ranked Baylor.
Six games later, Ruef has become top-ranked Stanford's de facto center and the missing piece on a team that lost All-American forward Nneka Ogwumike to graduation.
Coaches will have a better sense if they have found the right mix for a sixth consecutive Final Four appearance when the Cardinal (9-0) ends 2012 against three ranked schools starting Wednesday at No. 21 South Carolina. Stanford renews its annual rivalry Saturday at No. 10 Tennessee before playing host to second-ranked Connecticut on Dec. 29.
The game in Knoxville marks the 25th anniversary of one of the best series in women's basketball. But for the first time Tennessee won't be coached by Pat Summitt, who left her post in the spring after announcing in 2010 she had been diagnosed with early onset dementia, Alzheimer's type.
While Stanford-Tennessee is a marquee matchup, the Cardinal's first test is against a school it defeated this year in the Sweet 16. South Carolina (10-0) lost four starters to graduation and like Tennessee has a blend of talented youth with some experienced returners.
Stanford has four returning starters from last season's Final Four team but little about the Cardinal looks the same.
"This year she steals rebounds from me," leading rebounder Chiney Ogwumike said. "I never, ever would have thought Mikaela Ruef would be a rebound stealer."
Stanford coaches were not sure exactly what kind of player they got when Ruef arrived from Beavercreek, Ohio, as "a goofball freshman," according to coach Tara VanDerveer. By her sophomore season, Ruef had redoubled her efforts to impress coaches.
"I think something clicked, and I can't tell you what it was," VanDerveer said. "I don't even know if she knows what it was."
Ruef ended her sophomore season by contributing off the bench in the NCAA tournament. But the forward appeared only three times last season because of a painful plantar fasciitis condition in her left foot. She had surgery in March then missed part of preseason training because of stress reaction of the foot.
The decision to give Ruef her first start, though, was easy. Stanford didn't want 6-4 Ogwumike and 6-3 Joslyn Tinkle to get into foul trouble while having to guard Griner.
Ruef could not have been more nervous about facing the 6-8 Griner, considered one of the greatest centers in women's college basketball history. But she stayed within herself to give her teammates a chance.
"I might not be the greatest shooter or fastest person at my position," Ruef said.
But she has embraced the odd jobs the team needs to function: Passing, rebounding, screening, playing defense.
"I definitely want to work as hard as I can and do the things everybody can do but not necessarily does," Ruef said.
She hopes to return next season, but it will depend on whether Stanford has a scholarship available for a fifth-year senior.
In the meantime, Ruef treats every moment as if it might be her last. Her leadership-by-example has resulted in her being named a captain with Ogwumike and Tinkle. VanDerveer thought Ruef could relate to the injured players and bench warmers as much as the regulars.
"She's been someone who has been closer to the water cooler than the court," the coach said.
Contact Elliott Almond at 408-920-5865 and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/elliottalmond
Stanford (9-0) at South Carolina (10-0), 4:30 p.m.