SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Jayne Appel slipped the celebratory net from her own neck and handed it over to Jeanette Pohlen where it truly belonged. There was no doubt about that.
This is Appel's team. Yet this was Pohlen's night. She's the biggest reason Appel is headed back to the Final Four for one last shot at a national championship.
Pohlen drove the length of the court for the game-winning layup as the final buzzer sounded, lifting top-seeded Stanford past third-seeded Xavier 55-53 in the Sacramento Regional final Monday night for a third straight trip to the Final Four.
Pohlen pulled out the biggest play yet to save a spectacular season when the Cardinal were a far cry from their dominant selves. Stanford had won the first three games of the tournament by a combined 98 points.
"I'm still in shock right now," she said. "It was kind of weird. Everybody was behind me. ... It was kind of crazy, just weaving in and out. The assistant coaches kept telling me 4 seconds is a long time. It did feel like a long time."
These gutsy Musketeers stood up to Stanford, all right.
Xavier's Dee Dee Jernigan missed two wide-open layups in the closing 12 seconds that likely would have sent the Musketeers to San Antonio for their first Final Four.
"I was too anxious," Jernigan said. "It was like a kid in a candy store. I was too open and didn't think it was coming out."
Stanford's Kayla Pedersen inbounded the ball underneath the Xavier basket to Pohlen with 4.4 seconds left. Pohlen dribbled all the way for the winning shot. The play was briefly reviewed, then Stanford erupted in celebration once the officials ruled the basket good.
Xavier's Special Jennings collapsed to the floor, hands on her head, after the basket. Teammate April Phillips grabbed her head in disbelief at midcourt while Stanford's players jumped for joy. A few minutes later, fresh victory T-shirts and hats in hand, fifth-year senior Rosalyn Gold-Onwude held Pohlen in a long embrace while their teammates began cutting down the nets. After that, the players grabbed pompoms from their cheerleaders and pumped them in the air, Appel dancing a jig with a net around her neck.
Xavier hung with Stanford for all 40 minutes -- and the Cardinal needed every bit of grit they had to move on for at least one more.
"I don't think we can play any harder. It was a pleasure to be a part of that game," Xavier coach Kevin McGuff said.
Pedersen called it "divine intervention" after Jernigan failed to convert.
"We were very lucky. She missed two point-blank layups. But there's a lot of pressure with the clock going down," Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said. "I thought people were very tentative and I did not see from our team what I've seen all year."
Nnemkadi Ogwumike had 16 points and 14 rebounds and Pedersen added 18 points and 10 boards for the Cardinal (35-1), who survived an intense defensive matchup from the physical Musketeers to win their 26th straight game in a foul-filled affair at Arco Arena. They will next play in the national semifinals Sunday in San Antonio against the winner of Tuesday's matchup between Kentucky and Oklahoma.
If all goes as expected, Stanford is one game away from that highly anticipated rematch with Connecticut. The undefeated defending champion Huskies handed the Cardinal their lone loss back on Dec. 23. Stanford is the last team to beat UConn, in the 2008 NCAA semifinals in Tampa -- but lost to the Huskies in last year's semis.
A good hour after the win, Appel waited anxiously for the highlight reel of the day's best plays on the locker-room TV.
"Jeanette has to be No. 1," Appel hollered. "Come on, baby!"
Several moments later, there it was.
The players went wild. JJ Hones filmed it on her phone. Pohlen put her hands on her head, still stunned by what she did.
"Oh my God! That's my play!" she shouted.
"Jeanette, you made SportsCenter!" exclaimed assistant coach Kate Paye.
"Wow," Appel added.
All the while, Gold-Onwude cradled the trophy across the room.
The last time Pohlen remembers making a game-winner was in fourth grade.
"I never really thought that would ever happen," she said.
The Cardinal overcame a cold first half in which they shot a season-low 25 percent, went 7 for 28 and missed 10 of their 12 3-point tries. It was Stanford's worst shooting half of the season and only the third time it was held below 30 percent.
Pohlen's basket was just her second all night -- and she went 1 for 5 from 3-point range.
VanDerveer and top assistant Amy Tucker had discussed this exact late-game scenario earlier in the day -- and VanDerveer also talked it over with reserve guard Lindy La Rocque after their pregame meal.
Pohlen mentioned calling a timeout once the ball was across midcourt, but VanDerveer said, "No, take it to the basket."
"This was big for her, the biggest shot of her career at Stanford," VanDerveer said of Pohlen. "Obviously her speed is her strength. Amy diagrammed the play and it was just getting Jeanette on the move."
Amber Harris scored 20 points and April Phillips added 11 points, six rebounds and four assists for Xavier (30-4), which saw its 21-game winning streak end.
Stanford had to win it with Appel on the bench as she fouled out with 3:58 left. Xavier's 6-foot-6 Ta'Shia Phillips sat down with her fifth foul at the 5:32 mark.
"I'm so proud of my teammates," Appel said.
Later, Pohlen returned that special net to Appel.