STANFORD, Calif. – Mikaela Ruef found herself an engineering job on campus last spring and started sporting a hard hat and safety glasses to pay for her final two quarters at Stanford, knowing she no longer had a basketball scholarship as a fifth-year senior.
The approximate price tag: $40,000.
Injuries to a pair of teammates opened up one the program's 15 scholarships to Ruef after all. Now she has gone from the end of the bench as a freshman to unlikely Stanford Regional MVP who led the Cardinal back to the Final Four after last season's disappointing miss. Stanford (33-3) looks to end defending champion Connecticut's 44-game winning streak in the national semifinals Sunday in Nashville, Tenn.
Her voice hoarse and a backward Final Four hat with a piece of net hanging from it on her head, Ruef realized after Tuesday night's win over North Carolina that it's been quite a journey from her days "hugging the water cooler," as coach Tara VanDerveer referred to her old sideline seat.
"Happy is not happy enough," Ruef said. "It's more than that."
Ruef's rise to NCAA tournament star has been a surprising one, especially since there were questions about whether she would return this season.
In a win against Penn State in the regional semifinals, Ruef, a forward, contributed 11 points, 13 rebounds, five assists and two steals. She topped that performance with a career-high 17 points in Tuesday night's 74-65 victory over North Carolina, making three three-pointers after coming into the game 7-for-51 on three-pointers in 131 games.
"It was by far her best game ever putting on a Stanford uniform," VanDerveer said. "Mikaela downplays how much work she put into doing what she did tonight. She's one of those early risers, and she was in the gym getting her shot up."
Ruef is taking pressure off All-America forward Chiney Ogwumike.
"Ruef has become, I think, a much, much better complement to Chiney," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said.
Throughout the season, Ruef has been working 16 to 20 hours a week as a project engineer for Preston Pipelines. She was at 30 hours during the summer.
"I can't explain it, but somehow everything seems to work out in my favor," Ruef said. "It helped me grow as a person. I wouldn't recognize myself as a freshman coming in here. I'm a completely different person. I think the job gave me a sense of responsibility. I had to schedule my days, 'OK, I have to take time to get in the gym and work on my shot, work on my game so that I can put my team in the best position to get back in the Final Four this year.'"
Ruef impressed her coaches with her commitment to returning for one last chance at a Final Four, even if it meant paying her own way.
"We knew we didn't have a scholarship, and she knew it, too," associate coach Amy Tucker said. "She was working that summer and knew she was going to come back and have to pay for it for two quarters. That's just the way it was going to be because she really wanted to come back. For someone who started on the 15th seat on the bench to now value the experience so much she wanted to pay for it, there's not a better story of the kid who loves our experience."