Two years ago, it didn't seem Mikaela Ruef would leave much of an imprint on the Stanford women's basketball program.
As the second-seeded Cardinal (29-3) opens the NCAA tournament Saturday against No. 15 South Dakota, it's now difficult to imagine the team without her.
Stanford's success orbits around All-American Chiney Ogwumike, who Friday was named one of four finalists for the Naismith Trophy as college player of the year.
But if Stanford is to return to the Women's Final Four for the sixth time in seven years, it will take superb efforts from players such as Ruef starting this weekend in Ames, Iowa.
The All-Pac-12 honorable mention player has mastered aspects of basketball that often go unnoticed and underappreciated by fans but not by teammates.
"We see it every day," freshman forward Kailee Johnson said. "The little things she does get noticed in practice."
Don't think for a moment coach Tara VanDerveer and her staff haven't seen it, too.
"She's kind of our glue on the floor," assistant head coach Amy Tucker said. "We need what she does more this season."
Ruef has started 31 of 32 Stanford games because she averages 9.5 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game. Tucker calls her Stanford's best passer.
"Mikaela is able to find Chiney in areas the rest of the team isn't able to," fellow senior Sara James said.
The forward also averages almost seven points a game with a midrange jumper that keeps defenses honest.
"She makes it easier for Chiney," said James, who with Ruef and Ogwumike are the team's three seniors. "She protects Chiney defensively."
Ruef is a fifth-year senior who this week finished a master's program in civil and environmental engineering.
She sometimes can't believe how her fortunes changed after she struggled during her first two seasons at Stanford. Tucker called it a process to get the 6-foot-3 forward from Beavercreek, Ohio, to understand what it took to play at the highest level of college basketball.
"There was a lot of head butting going on," Tucker recalled. "You hope they get it. You never know."
By the time Ruef understood what it took, she suffered a toe injury that limited her to three games as a junior. She used the time away from basketball to focus on school.
Ruef quickly became a starter last season but had almost no impact on the scoring sheet. She worked hard over the summer to change that.
"Just because I don't prefer to score doesn't mean I can't score," Ruef said.
The blond-haired forward wanted to return for a fifth season after the Cardinal got bounced in the Sweet 16 last year, although Stanford didn't have any scholarships available.
Ruef comes from a family of modest means, so she got a job in her field to help fund one more year of school and basketball. But just before the season the player was awarded a scholarship because Toni Kokenis and Aly Beebe had to medically retire.
Ruef, however, kept the job with Preston Pipeline, where she assists with an on-campus engineering project.
In other words, Ruef completed a master's degree, worked part-time and helped lead the Cardinal to the Pac-12 regular-season title this season.
Now that she has finished her final exam, Ruef's full attention is on her last NCAA tournament.
"I'm so over school," she said.
But not basketball.
"I just want to do what our team needs me to do," Ruef said. "If they need me to score, I will score. If they need me to pass or set a screen, I will do what our team needs."
At this point in the season, the Cardinal needs everything she has to offer.
Contact Elliott Almond at 408-920-5865. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/elliottalmond.
Stanford Region, at Ames, Iowa: No. 2 Stanford vs. No. 15 South Dakota, 3:30 p.m. ESPN2
Notre Dame Region, at Waco Texas: No. 7 Cal
vs. No. 10 Fordham,
Cal finds its identity, carries confidence into NCAAs. PAGE 5