Cardinal Emerges From a Long Winter

Stanford Will Appear in 1st Title Game Since 1992: Stanford 82, U-Conn. 73

Candice Wiggins and Kayla Pedersen get Stanford to the title game for the first time since 1992.
Candice Wiggins and Kayla Pedersen get Stanford to the title game for the first time since 1992. (By Al Messerschmidt -- Getty Images)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 7, 2008; Page E12

TAMPA, April 6 -- Since this year's NCAA tournament began, Stanford has been on a mission to prove it is a better team than most people were willing to believe. When the selection committee gave the Cardinal the No. 2 seed rather than the top seed the team felt it deserved, it used that slight as motivation to beat top-seeded Maryland in the region final.

And when the talk at this Final Four centered on how everyone wanted to see Connecticut and Tennessee in the championship game, Stanford stubbornly ignored those wishes.

With a composure that belied its lack of Final Four experience, the Cardinal calmly knocked off its second top-seeded team in a row, downing Connecticut, 82-73, in the early semifinal game to advance to its first championship game since it last won the title in 1992.

Stanford (35-3) will play Tennessee on Tuesday night.

No one will want to overlook the Cardinal after its performance Sunday night at St. Pete Times Forum. This was a much different team from the one that lost to Connecticut (36-2) by 12 points in November. Behind a balanced offense with four players scoring in double figures, Stanford demonstrated why it has won 23 in a row. The Cardinal was led, as usual, by Candice Wiggins, who scored 25 points and grabbed 13 rebounds. The strong inside play of Kayla Pedersen and Jayne Appel also made a difference. They combined for 32 points and 17 rebounds.

"We ran with them and we ran on them. That's their game," guard Rosalyn Gold-Onwude said. "This is amazing."

For a team making its first appearance in the Final Four in 11 years, Stanford's composure was remarkable. Nothing seemed to fluster the Cardinal. Late in the game, when Connecticut was beginning to gamble more with its defense, overplaying passing lanes and going for steals, Stanford never flinched. The Cardinal never seemed to notice the shot clock winding down as it calmly and coolly passed the ball around before finding an open player. On one possession late in the game, J.J. Hones, rather than launching a shot from the perimeter with the shot clock about to expire, sent the ball underneath the basket to Appel, who made a layup as the time ran out.

Stanford was always making the extra pass. The Cardinal had 20 assists on 28 field goals.

"They're a lot better team than they were back in November. They played the game today the way we usually play it," Huskies Coach Geno Auriemma said. "We got done in by our own stuff."

Connecticut, which was back in the Final Four after a three-year absence, wasn't able to generate offense as it normally does. The Huskies like to turn their opponents over and score in transition or grab offensive rebounds for second-chance points. They could do neither against Stanford.

All-American point guard Renee Montgomery expended so much energy trying to slow down Wiggins that her offense suffered. Montgomery scored 15 points on 4-of-18 shooting, missing eight of nine three-point attempts.

Both defenses did a nice job neutralizing star players early on. Stanford's Wiggins, the four-time all-American and Wade Trophy winner, had nine points at the half on 3-of-9 shooting. Wiggins came into the game averaging 28 points in the NCAA tournament. Connecticut's Maya Moore, the Big East player of the year, didn't make her first basket until just over seven minutes remained in the half. Moore went 3 of 7 for six points in the first half.

Hones and Jeanette Pohlen did a nice job slowing down Moore, who scored 14 of her 20 points in the second half.

Pedersen, the Pacific-10 Conference freshman of the year, had the best first half of any player. The 6-foot-4 forward is a versatile player who is as comfortable underneath the basket as she is out on the perimeter. She was the only player in double figures for either team at the half, scoring 10 points on 5-of-9 shooting. Pedersen finished with 17 points.

It was a well-played first half with the teams combining for five turnovers, only one by Stanford. But early in the second half, that all changed. The Cardinal turned the ball over several times and missed five of its first seven shots, allowing Connecticut to pull to 47-46.

Wiggins, who had been hounded by Montgomery all game, finally broke free to hit back-to-back three-point shots from the right corner. Wiggins's baskets sparked a 10-point run by Stanford that put the Cardinal in front 57-46, from which Connecticut never recovered.

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