STANFORD -- Mikaela Ruef wore a piece of the net through a ball cap Tuesday night after a career-making performance to lead Stanford back to the women's Final Four, a lights-out shooting display to help the second-seeded Cardinal subdue inspired North Carolina 74-65 at Maples Pavilion.
The fifth-year senior forward can't stop her goofy side from showing. But she could not have been more serious in the Elite Eight game when Cardinal star Chiney Ogwumike struggled against a suffocating defense.
Ruef scored a career-high 17 points as five Cardinal scored in double figures to advance to the big stage Sunday in Nashville, Tenn., where it faces top-ranked and undefeated Connecticut in the national semifinal.
"It was by far her best game ever putting on a Stanford uniform," coach Tara VanDerveer said.
North Carolina associate head coach Andrew Calder described Ruef's play as stealing the game from the Tar Heels.
"She doesn't make those threes we sitting down right on top of" Ogwumike "and they are still struggling to score," he said.
But a brutish post player who had never made more than one 3-pointer in a game, made three to help Stanford (33-3) survive a 22-9 first-half deficit.
"They were literally standing in the paint," said Ruef, who wears jersey No. 3. "I said, 'You know what, I'm going to turn this over or it's going in.' "
For one night it went in for the woman who last week completed a master's degree in engineering.
Junior Bonnie Samuelson also added three 3-pointers and scored 13 points, Amber Orrange had 14 points and four assists, and freshman Lili Thompson had 10 points.
Ogwumike had a workmanlike 20 points and 10 rebounds for her 26th double-double of the season. But the All-American had five of Stanford's 13 turnovers against a relentless opponent.
North Carolina (27-10) came out punching to build a 13-point lead before the Cardinal slowly clawed its way back. The Tar Heels shot 53.8 percent from 3-point range to stun Stanford in the first half.
VanDerveer told the players, "You're playing basketball like you're at a fire."
She reminded her deep and experienced squad to breathe deep while trailing 36-30 at halftime.
"I felt like we were doing yoga," she said.
Stanford opened the second half with an 20-8 run to take a 50-46 lead that eventually led to its 17th victory at Maples this season without a loss.
Ogwumike calmed down after scoring only four points in the first half.
"It was an NCAA defense," Ogwumike said. "Banging in the pain. Throwback basketball. I was frazzled."
Tar Heel players said inconsistent officiating made it difficult for them to be even more physical.
"I don't think it is fair for the game to be more physical than it was," Ogwumike countered.
The Tar Heels' leading scorer, Diamond DeShields, played despite in pain after twisting her ankle Sunday against South Carolina. She wouldn't blame the taped right ankle for slowing her down but had only 13 points, missing her final four shots.
Fellow freshman Allisha Gray had 19 points and nine rebounds for fourth-seeded North Carolina. But 15 of those points came in the first half when the guard made three consecutive 3-pointers.
VanDerveer was happy to survive as she reached her 11th Final Four at Stanford. But she also appreciated North Carolina's strategy as the road gets even tougher Sunday.
"This game gets you ready," VanDerveer said.
Stanford lost at UConn 76-57 in the season's second game. The schools also have met three times in the past six Final Fours. Stanford upset the Huskies in 2008 in the semifinals, then fell to UConn the next two years, including a tight championship game 53-47 in 2010.
It took everything Stanford had to get to Music City for another encounter against the nation's best program.
On this night, Stanford had to raise the Ruef to get it done.
At Nashville, Tenn.
Stanford (33-3) vs. UConn (38-0) TBA
Notre Dame (36-0) vs. Maryland (28-6) TBA
Thompson: Team effort earns Final Four trip. PAGE 5
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