Sunday, April 4, 2010
Huskies vs. Cardinal: The Rematch
By Charlie Creme
Special to ESPN.com
SAN ANTONIO -- We've seen this show before, yet this is one sequel that is worth seeing. Tuesday will mark the fourth time in three seasons these teams have met, three of those coming in the Final Four. UConn won earlier this season in one of its tougher games and beat the Cardinal last April in St. Louis. However, the discussion might be about a Huskies three-peat had Stanford not knocked off UConn in the national semifinals two years ago. The Cardinal win came two years to the day before Tuesday's final.
Geno Auriemma called Stanford the toughest team to play against for his club because of all its scorers. He's probably right even if that kind of output wasn't necessarily on display Sunday night, when only four Cardinal players scored more than one basket and Nnemkadi Ogwumike pumped in more than half of Stanford's 73 points. What was on display, especially in the first 33 minutes, was Tara VanDerveer's triangle offense, the spacing it creates and all the areas for which the defense has to account. Even if Ogwumike did most of the scoring and the starting backcourt of Ros Gold-Onwude and Jeanette Pohlen shot only 3-of-16 from the field, Auriemma knows better than anyone how exceptional that offense is and how well these Stanford players can run it. Now, more of them just need to make shots, which they haven't done in the past two games.
Stanford did make shots and scored 40 points in the first half against this UConn group in the teams' December meeting, so the Cardinal know it can be done. Tuesday would certainly be the ideal night for the entire lineup to start making shots again.
As for UConn, what isn't a Connecticut strength? The Huskies rank first in the country in assist-to-turnover ratio, assists per game, field goal percentage defense, field goal percentage offense, scoring margin, scoring defense and 3-point field goal percentage defense. They are second in scoring offense and rebound margin. This is a case where the numbers don't lie. Rather, they tell the story of exactly how dominant UConn is. Connecticut punishes opponents with relentless effort and flawless execution that is accompanied by exceptional talent.
The one area that might have been a question mark was answered on Sunday. Baylor punched the Huskies in the mouth early in the second half. That really hadn't happened yet. How would they respond? Sure, Oklahoma took a second-half lead for a possession earlier this season and, yes, the Lady Bears never actually took a lead, but this one did feel different. It felt like a real threat. The magnitude of the game, the volume of the Baylor and Oklahoma fans in the Alamodome pulling for the other side, and a little adversity -- all were factors that UConn handled exceptionally. The Huskies didn't wilt, didn't crack, didn't even really bat an eye. They are that confident. Now the world knows what the players and coaches have been saying all along. The streak isn't a burden. Success isn't taken for granted. They really do play in the moment. This moment, they were on their heels for one of the few times all season. Five minutes later, it was no longer a contest. So, thriving in crisis, albeit not overwhelmingly substantial, is also a Huskies strength.
Nnemkadi Ogwumike vs. Maya Moore. Each had an individual performance among the best the Final Four has ever seen, on the same night. So the comparisons heading into Tuesday's final are inevitable. What makes them that much more inevitable is, despite having different style games, Moore and Ogwumike likely will be matched up man-to-man much of the night. Both will score. The offensive talent on both sides is just too good for one to completely shut down the other with Ogwumike going after the shorter Moore's post defense skills. Can the Stanford sophomore All-American get the Wade Trophy winner in foul trouble by attacking her down low? That could be something to watch if Stanford has a chance to shock the world. Moore already spoke of the matchup in the postgame news conference after beating Baylor. She accepts that challenge and is looking forward to checking her 6-foot-2 opponent.
On the other hand, Moore will test Ogwumike's mobility and quickness on the perimeter. Moore's constant movement, coming off screens and endless search for space could wear down Ogwumike and keep her away from the basket, making her a less effective rebounder (Ogwumike had only six boards in their earlier meeting).
It's not a coincidence that the two best frontcourts are represented by the last two teams standing. It's also no coincidence that two of the greatest Final Four performances ever came from a member of each team's frontcourt -- Ogwumike's 38 points, 16 rebounds and Moore's 34 points, 12 rebounds). Brittney Griner aside, this could be a preview of next season's Wade Trophy battle. Moore is the more versatile and Final Four experienced of the two, but she also needs to stay on the floor to be effective. She has had a slight propensity for early foul trouble in the tournament, and it was her two early fouls and subsequent time on the bench that preceded Stanford's run and, eventually, the halftime lead in December.
At one point in their careers -- the two have played against each other since they were 11 years old -- Jayne Appel was a better post player than Tina Charles. Two years ago in Tampa, Fla., Appel completely outplayed Charles. That isn't the case anymore. Injuries have robbed Appel of a portion of her ability. She's still an All-American, but even her coach acknowledged that, with the latest ankle sprain, Appel isn't the same player she was even a month ago. It was clear that against Oklahoma, Appel wasn't the finisher she has been. Charles is exactly that -- a finisher. She is probably the best finisher of the 2010 season. The UConn senior has surpassed her friend as the game's best post player, and Appel's limitations widen the gap further.
|In a December matchup, Stanford actually held a halftime lead over UConn before losing 80-68.|
Connecticut's Kalana Greene is not underappreciated -- underpublicized, but not underappreciated. She's a double-figure scorer on one of the all-time great teams but isn't exceptionally well known. That will happen when you share the floor with the game's two best players. And she's a third option for a reason. Sunday proved it as Greene contributed only six points in the win over Baylor. A successful scenario for her against Stanford might not exist, but that doesn't take away from what she means to the team.
The same can be said for Stanford's Kayla Pedersen. She's the bridge between the Cardinal frontcourt and backcourt, the key to their outside shooting, yet a vital cog to their high and low post game. Pedersen is way beyond underappreciated or undervalued. Some nights, she is Stanford's best player and is definitely the most versatile every night. There's not much she can't do, but the Cardinal will need more than the three points she contributed in the second half against Oklahoma.
Appel, Ogwumike, and Pedersen make up a high-level group, better than any in the game. Except one. It happens to be the one they are playing.
Neither was a thing of beauty on Sunday night. Connecticut's Caroline Doty and Tiffany Hayes combined to make one field goal attempt in 14 tries, and it happened to be the first one of the game. Gold-Onwude and Pohlen's 3-for-16 was only marginally better. What both duos did do was limit turnovers. Stanford's guards coughed it up just once, UConn's three times. Fewer turnovers means more possessions, which means more shots for the big guns on both sides. Gold-Onwude said her mother has a superstition that there are a certain number of 3-pointers out there, thinking that the dearth of them Sunday means an avalanche is coming Tuesday. That would tip the scales in this fairly close comparison. Hayes, however, makes the difference. She has an explosive ability the others do not. She's capable of driving to the bucket, sinking a 3 on the next trip and finishing in transition all in one sequence, a run all by herself.
Neither coach has used much of one in the tournament. Stanford goes seven deep, and Connecticut is essentially down to six. Auriemma did turn to Kelly Faris for 27 minutes against Baylor, and the freshman turned in the kind of game he loves. Although she didn't score on two field goal attempts, Faris did have six assists and four rebounds, and, in his estimation, played outstanding defense. That's really all UConn needs. Lorin Dixon has been relegated to spot duty and would become a factor only in some more extreme foul difficulty. Even on a night when Doty and Hayes couldn't score and were in foul trouble, Dixon saw just three minutes. Auriemma seems hitched to the Doty-Hayes-Faris wagon in the backcourt.
JJ Hones and Joslyn Tinkle are more integral on the Stanford side, but Tara VanDerveer isn't necessarily looking for points. Hones is in to run the team just as Pohlen or Gold-Onwude would. She might even be the starting point guard if injuries hadn't robbed her of so much of her career. Tinkle is the center in waiting at Stanford, but for now is asked to get the other bigs some rest and keep the Cardinal competitive on the boards at the same time. Stanford's reserves are a bit more seasoned, but this is not an area that will decide the game.
Both programs have legendary coaches who are among the top four or five game planners in the country. Both play with a fierce intensity and a disdain for losing. Both have veteran players who play with a calmness in pressurized situations. That's one of the chief reasons Stanford is even here. But, these are also the season's two best teams, and they know it. Confidence is not a problem. It's the level of confidence that might differentiate the two. Stanford strongly believes it can beat UConn. The Huskies know they will win.
Stanford's 3-point shooting has been the Cardinal's Achilles' heel throughout the tournament. UConn is probably the only other team in the country that could withstand such horrid outside shooting and still reach a title game. The Cardinal have been downright putrid from beyond the arc and have reached the point and the opponent where they can't get away with it. The numbers are staggering. Eliminating the win over Iowa in the second round when Gold-Onwude led a 3-point assault, Stanford has shot 16-of-69 (23.1 percent) from 3-point range in the tournament. It gets to an even worse 10-for-50 (20.0 percent) in just the past three games, which probably are a better barometer with the bigger arenas of Arco and the Alamodome and the better opponents (Georgia, Xavier, Oklahoma). Stanford needs a more balanced attack against the Huskies, and it begins with perimeter shooting. When the Cardinal led UConn by two at the half Dec. 23 in Hartford, they made 3-of-7 shots from 3-point range. That kind of percentage over 40 minutes would be adequate, if not necessary. Pedersen and Pohlen, in particular, have to be significantly better from long-distance. If they aren't, the distance between UConn and Stanford's point total will be significant.
Connecticut. The Huskies' will is just too strong. With the finish line this close, it seems inconceivable that UConn would trip and fall. The Baylor win showed how two players, when they are the best in the game, can, in fact, win a game, even a Final Four game, virtually by themselves. Stanford is a fantastic team that probably just came around at the wrong time. Without the existence of Connecticut, the talk might be about a Cardinal dynasty (Stanford would have a 56-game winning streak of its own if losses to UConn were subtracted). Right now, though, with Appel's bum ankle and the outside shooting woes, conjuring up the scenario for an upset is difficult. The Huskies win, hoist the trophy again, complete the consecutive unbeaten seasons run and rightfully take their place in college basketball history.
Charlie Creme can be reached at email@example.com.