By Tom Taylor
Maples Pavilion today will host easily its biggest game this season when the No. 2 Connecticut women’s basketball team squares up against No. 1 Stanford in the Cardinal’s final contest of 2012.
Both teams have consistently been amongst the top handful of basketball programs in recent years and while the Huskies (10-0) have been the more successful team over that period, including winning back-to-back national championships in 2009 and 2010, the Cardinal (11-0) has still been a thorn in the East-Coast school’s side. Two years ago it brought to an end UConn’s record 90-game winning streak with a 71-57 victory on the Farm, a winning run that only started after Stanford knocked Connecticut out of the NCAA Final Four in 2008.
“We wouldn’t necessarily come out here if we weren’t playing somebody like Stanford,” said Connecticut head coach Geno Auriemma. “We’re not just gonna get on a plane and fly 3,000 miles to play just anybody … Win or lose, this is an important trip for them [the Connecticut players]. If you lose you go back and you say: ‘Ok man, we’re not as good as we thought we were at this, this and this.’ And if you win you go: ‘You know we’re a little better than we thought maybe, but there’s still a lot of work to do.’”
This time around, Stanford has the advantage of hosting the contest. Maples holds the longest active home-winning streak of any team, second only in the all-time records to Connecticut’s 99-game mark that was snapped by St. John’s last season. Today, though, will see the biggest threat all year to that unblemished record.
“Every team likes playing on their home court,” said Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer. “You have your own fans and you have your own routine … [but] that’s not going to be the deciding factor, we have to play well. We go on the road, we’re at Gonzaga and they have a great crowd, a tremendous atmosphere, but you have to make baskets, you have to rebound and make stops. So we know it’s what we do on the court.”
Of a total of 40 first-place votes in the AP poll, Stanford currently has 24 and Connecticut 14, with the remainder going to No. 3 Baylor. Before the Cardinal defeated the then-No.1 Bears in Hawaii in November, though, it was ranked down at No. 4 and just as that result changed many opinions about VanDerveer’s current squad, today’s contest will be seen as a serious test for both of these schools.
“It’s gonna be an amazing atmosphere, we’re excited,” said Stanford senior forward Joslyn Tinkle, “but at the same time I don’t think we ever expect to win. We have an extremely large target on our backs and people would do anything to see us fall. That motivates us, that keeps us extremely hungry and motivated to remain at the top.”
Connecticut senior guard Kelly Farris was here the last time her team visited Maples, when the Huskies were the nation’s top-ranked program. It is clear that rankings play little part in a simple desire to leave the Bay Area with better memories this time around.
“The media kinda cares more about the ranking and who’s playing who,” Farris said. “When we look at it, that stuff’s on paper and what’s on the court is gonna be two really competitive teams. It’s gonna be a dog fight. Two years ago we were here and that’s what it was. They came out on top, they played harder in the end.”
This contest will feature arguably the nation’s two best offensive teams and, of the two, UConn’s lineup has probably impressed more this year with five 100-plus scores so far.
“I think we’re confident in going out there that we have a lot of people that can score,” said Connecticut junior guard Bria Hartley. “Different people to come out and its gonna be hard for teams to defend that, and also that helps us defensively because we’re able to press a lot more and get fresh legs in people rotating in and out.”
That does not guarantee a big scoreline, though, especially considering Stanford is by far the strongest team Connecticut has faced so far this season and that crucial to both teams’ success in recent years has been their defense.
“[Stanford junior forward] Chiney [Ogwumike] is a leader along with Joslyn [Tinkle], [senior forward] Mikaela Ruef,” VanDerveer said. “Our front line … they really understand what our team needs done and they just do whatever we need, whether it’s screening, blocking shots, rebounding, playing great defense.”
In the last two years, Connecticut and Stanford graduated the back-to-back No. 1 picks in the WNBA draft, the Huskies’ Maya Moore in 2011 and the Card’s Nneka Ogwumike ’12 last year, giving both teams a very different complexion compared to the contest at Maples in 2010.
“Here two years ago the focus was definitely Maya Moore,” VanDerveer said, “and we went over basically every situation that we could where she would catch the ball. What move she would want to make, how we were gonna defend her. It wasn’t all Maya Moore, but a lot of it was her. This year’s team, they do have a lot of weapons … they have great size, athleticism, versatility and they’re very, very well coached. We’re not focused on one player as much as we’re focused on their system.”
Where Stanford may have lost Nneka Ogwumike, though, it still can count on her sister, Chiney Ogwumike, a serious contender for the Naismith College Player of the Year.
“Every game that she steps on the floor, she plays harder than everybody else,” Auriemma said. “She competes at a real high level and talent wise, she’s as talented as any player in the country. Her skill level’s gotten better and better every time I’ve seen her play. She does things that make people have to reevaluate how you’re gonna guard her. She may even be further along than Nneka [Ogwumike] was at this stage of her career, and that’s saying something.”
“We’re gonna have to be smart about it,” Auriemma continued.” I’m not worried about what Kelly [Farris] will do defensively, I don’t think there’s anybody in the country she can’t guard. But at the same time we’ve got to be careful what the other matchups are. We could be helping ourselves in one area and hurting ourselves in another.”
In the same way that Stanford and Connecticut’s rivalry has helped both schools to play better and better over recent seasons, their players must also balance this friendship and competition. Talking about Hartley, one of her best friends, Chiney Ogwumike summed up this paradox: “We’re frenemies, we’re best frenemies. We’re best friends when we’re competing with USA basketball, but we’re enemies when it comes Dec. 29.”
Stanford’s sold-out contest against Connecticut will tip off at 1 p.m. PST in Maples Pavilion and will be broadcast live on ESPNU and KZSU.