Xavier coach Kevin McGuff knew last season's devastating defeat against Stanford would have one of two effects on his team.
"Either it would be an anchor weighing us down or it would be something to motivate us," he said Monday.
So far it has inspired the Musketeers, who today face Stanford nine months after Jeanette Pohlen drove the length of the court for a layup to give the Cardinal a 55-53 victory and its third consecutive trip to the Final Four.
Fourth-ranked Xavier (10-1) kicks off a big week for Bay Area women's basketball, coming to Maples Pavilion seeking a better result after blowing a chance to reach its first Final Four last spring.
No. 9 Stanford (7-2) also hosts top-ranked Connecticut on Thursday before opening the Pacific-10 Conference season Sunday at Cal. UConn, which plays at Pacific tonight, is expected to bring a record 90-game winning streak to sold-out Maples.
"We want to see where we're at right now," said Cardinal coach Tara VanDerveer, who got her 800th victory last week.
The AP Top 25 poll says her team is ranked just behind No. 8 UCLA. It is the first time Stanford has been ranked lower than another Pac-10 team since February 2009, when Cal was No. 3 and the Cardinal No. 6.
At risk this week: The Cardinal's 50-game home winning streak and potential seeding in the NCAA tournament.
Once ranked third, Stanford plummeted in the polls after December defeats at No. 22 DePaul and No. 6
Tennessee. The ranking has drained some of the drama from the high-profile matchups but not all of it.
"We haven't forgotten it; they haven't forgotten it," VanDerveer said of Xavier's collapse in the regional final in Sacramento.
McGuff has tried to forget.
"It's a new year, a new team, a new dynamic," he said.
But it's difficult not to remember the final 16 seconds, when Musketeers senior Dee Dee Jernigan missed two uncontested layups with the score tied. Then with 4.4 seconds left, Pohlen blew past defenders and banked in the winner as time expired.
Pohlen, who averages 15.2 points a game, also has tried to put the emotional finish behind her.
"This isn't a game to get to the Final Four," she said. "We just want to show we're improving every game."
Jernigan has graduated, but the bulk of the Musketeers returns, including 6-foot-5 forward Amber Harris and 6-6 center Ta'Shia Phillips. Harris averages 20.2 points and 10.5 rebounds, and Phillips averages 14 points and 12.6 rebounds.
Stanford no longer has 6-4 All-American Jayne Appel to counter such height. With Appel playing in the WNBA, the Cardinal is trying to find a winning combination.
"We have to be more versatile," VanDerveer said. "We're not going to come down and just pound it inside."
Stanford appears to have all the ingredients to make another Final Four run, but it might take the next six weeks to jell with two freshmen and a sophomore as part of the rotation. The expectation is that freshmen Chiney Ogwumike and Toni Kokenis and sophomore Joslyn Tinkle will be much improved by March.
"They are like sponges," Pohlen said. "They are willing to do whatever it takes."
Senior forward Kayla Pedersen said Monday the team needs to answer these questions: "Do we run? Do we rebound? Who do we go to at the end?"
The questions remain unanswered for the time being.