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Role reversal

Stanford beats top-seeded UConn at its own game

Posted: Monday April 7, 2008 2:05AM; Updated: Monday April 7, 2008 2:38AM
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Candice Wiggins and the Cardinal played nothing like the team that suffered a 12-point loss to UConn back in November.
Candice Wiggins and the Cardinal played nothing like the team that suffered a 12-point loss to UConn back in November.
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TAMPA, Fla. -- Will Stanford get anything right this weekend?

First the Cardinal missed the memo that Tennessee's Candace Parker was consensus Player of the Year -- Saturday morning, Stanford senior guard Candice Wiggins, in a display of genuine shock and gratitude that makes her the rare endearing superstar, accepted the Wade Trophy, women's basketball's Heisman. Then on Sunday night, the Cardinal blew up this Final Four's pet storyline -- a finals face-off between bitter rivals Connecticut and Tennessee -- by beating Connecticut 82-73 in the first semifinal.

While some scribes spent Saturday night figuring out how to broach the delicate topic of the brewing animosity between Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma and Tennessee coach Pat Summitt, who a year ago refused to extend the two teams' long regular-season series, the Cardinal players were holed up in their hotel, hosting an ice-cream social with former players and watching videos.

One such video was their November 12-point loss to Connecticut at a tournament in the Virgin Islands. The Stanford players didn't recognize themselves. "We wanted to shut it off," Wiggins says. "They ran us off the court." More to their liking was an eight-minute video based on the movie Any Given Sunday, the latest in the Cardinal's season-long series of Hollywood-themed inspirational flicks that include movie bits as well as Cardinal highlights. This one was entitled "This Given Sunday" and, critically, it included Al Pacino's "inch-by-inch" speech at the end of the original movie.

And that's how Stanford beat the high-flying Huskies. Slowly and steadily, with patience and composure that's rare on a team that starts a senior, three sophomores and one freshman. The Cardinal controlled tempo, took care of the ball and made good shots while limiting the Huskies' offensive bread and butter, transition points and offensive boards. The offense coach Tara VanDerveer had tweaked after the Connecticut loss operated beautifully: the Cardinal made 20 assists on 28 field goals, shooting 44 percent for the game.

"It seemed like they had six players out there, and all of them shot threes," Connecticut senior forward Brittany Hunter said.

"Every shot they missed in the Virgin Island they made today. Every one," Auriemma said. "They're a lot better team than they were back in November and they played the game today the way we usually play it. We got done in by our own stuff."

Stanford's defense was as clinical as its offense. Connecticut's All-American freshman Maya Moore had 20 points, but she had to sweat for every one of them as a trio of Cardinal players -- sophomore guard JJ Hones, junior forward Jillian Harmon and freshman guard Jeanette Pohlen -- rotated into her face. The Huskies' other All-American, junior guard Renee Montgomery, was 4-for-18 and 1-for-9 from the three-point arc. Stanford, meanwhile, got a combined 57 points from its three top scorers, Wiggins (25), Kayla Pedersen (17) and Jayne Appel (15), as well as 11 from Hones and nine from Harmon.

Auriemma had known that kind of balance was going to be trouble for his team. After watching Stanford's 98-87 win over Maryland in the Spokane regional final, Auriemma had talked to a couple of friends. "They said, 'You know what the key to beating Stanford is? Kayla Pedersen has to go one-for-something and Hones has to go one-for-something and the other perimeter player has to go one-for-something and then Wiggins and Jayne Appel can have whatever they want,'" Auriemma says. "Well, that didn't happen. And that's what makes them the team they are right now. They're a very difficult team to play right now. Very difficult."

Wiggins attributes the Cardinal juggernaut to a chemistry "you cannot fake." What drives them? "We don't want to stop playing with each other," she said. VanDerveer, who has an obvious affection for this team, doesn't want them to stop playing with each other, either. "This has been fun," she said. "They are really into this. It's coaching Utopia. There's not a coach in the country who wouldn't want to be in this locker room right now. It doesn't get any better than this."

Well, it still might. There's one more eight-minute video to watch on Monday night and a game to play on Tuesday. And who knows how many national expectations to shatter.

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