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SAN ANTONIO -- You can talk about margins of victory and perception, NCAA tournament paths, and total number of national championships the programs have. But, really, there's one thing that stands out as the chief statistical difference between Connecticut and Stanford this particular season.
|Typically a mismatch at the "3" position, 6-foot-4 Kayla Pedersen must knock down some shots from the perimeter for Stanford.|
The Huskies are 38-0, the Cardinal 36-1. Their seasons intersected Dec. 23 in Hartford, Conn., an 80-68 victory for UConn. And that's like a crime scene that keeps being picked over for just a few more small but important clues.
Whose fingerprints are all over that result? The usual suspects: Maya Moore, Tina Charles, Kalana Greene and Tiffany Hayes scored all but four of the Huskies' points that night. But also glance over there, in the turnover category: Stanford 17, UConn 11. And you can't overlook this bit of evidence, either: UConn outrebounded Stanford 43-29.
"I kind of feel I have it a little memorized," Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said of that game. "Connecticut has helped us get better.
"But I don't think it's healthy to constantly be putting it in [the team's] face. I mean, I think it's tedious watching some of the games and listening to some of the announcers just go on about how Connecticut never takes a play off. I mean, they're kids. They're college students, like our college students, and no one plays a perfect game.
"We want to learn from the mistakes we made, but also recognize, 'You went into Hartford, and you were up at halftime. You did a lot of good things, but not enough good things.'"
Let's say that game had been at Stanford's Maples Pavilion instead. Would it have made a difference in who won? And if it had, how would we be approaching Tuesday's women's NCAA title game (ESPN, 8:30 p.m. ET)? If the Cardinal were 37-0 and the Huskies were 37-1, would there have been any of the chatter from those outside the sport about why one team was dominating?
No, because Stanford didn't win the NCAA title last year -- hasn't won one, in fact, since 1992 -- and because, with one loss, UConn wouldn't have the appearance of being completely bulletproof two seasons in a row.
As VanDerveer said, though, the Cardinal did lead at halftime of this season's previous meeting. And had that held up, Stanford would be the team still working on 2009-10 perfection. Instead, the Cardinal -- like UConn, making the Final Four for the third year in a row -- will enter this title game with a big "U" on their jerseys for Underdog.
Stanford wears that both reluctantly and with a degree of resignation. Against everyone else this season, the Cardinal were expected to win. Only against UConn does Stanford have to look for the upset victory.
But UConn coach Geno Auriemma says this really is a test for his Huskies.
No one expects us to win this time. There are people who think we are the team that can beat [the Huskies], but I don't think people expect us to beat them.” -- Stanford's Jeanette Pohlen
"Defending Baylor is one thing, because you know what their strengths are, what their weaknesses are, and you can kind of play the percentages," he said. "But when you're playing a team like Stanford, there's less weaknesses that you can attack on your own defense. So it makes the challenge a little greater."
Auriemma also pointed out that Moore's foul trouble in the first half of the December game with Stanford contributed to why the Huskies looked so different in the second half.
"Your defense is dictated by who you have on the floor," he said. "So if we've got the right guys on the floor, and we're not in foul trouble, we can play a certain kind of defense. We can get out and pressure more, change defenses more and take more chances.
"But all of a sudden we were limited in that game, so we had to play a certain kind of defense that wasn't conducive for us. In the second half, we could come out and play and defend the way we wanted to, and it changed the game.
"We could do the exact same thing [Tuesday], and it wouldn't work. But that day it did. [Tuesday,] it might be something completely different. That's the beauty of every game."
As for what he expected from the Cardinal and VanDerveer this time, Auriemma did have strong praise wrapped in a wisecrack.
"I mean, it's Stanford. They probably study all the time," he joked. "They're great at reading books and figuring stuff out, and that's one of their strengths. It's one of Tara's great strengths is they are disciplined. They are meticulous. They do execute. They're precise in what they do."
All right, so how about if we go back to a much colder "scene" and see what "CSI" folks might find there? Let's look at the 2008 Final Four, when Stanford beat UConn in the semifinals, then fell to Tennessee.
Moore said just thinking about that loss to the Cardinal -- the last loss she has experienced with UConn -- makes her feel almost nauseated. She said it still fuels her now, a full two years later.
Meanwhile, Stanford's Jeanette Pohlen acknowledges this is a much different feeling for the Cardinal than in 2008. Then, the Cardinal had won the regular-season matchup with Tennessee.
"We could feel Tennessee's anger and aggression from when we beat them in December that year," Pohlen said. "All five of their starters were seniors, and to beat a team like that twice in one year would have been an amazing feat.
Our guards are going to have to do their part. We can't turn the ball over. We have to box out. And we have to get back in transition, especially on Maya, because she's really running hard in transition. And stay with it, try to avoid their big runs and help each other out.” -- Stanford's Rosalyn Gold-Onwude
"No one expects us to win this time. There are people who think we are the team that can beat [the Huskies], but I don't think people expect us to beat them."
Pohlen and fellow starter Kayla Pedersen were freshmen for the '08 Cardinal, a Candice Wiggins-led team that lost the championship 64-48 to Tennessee. Pedersen started that game and finished with seven points. Pohlen came off the bench and didn't score.
"Going into that final against Tennessee, I think we were more hesitant," Pedersen said. "I think we were passive, we weren't even necessarily expecting to be at the Final Four. We had upset Maryland [in the regional final], and then UConn."
That trip to the Final Four ended a decade-long absence from the event for Stanford, and it started another cycle of "three in a row" for the Cardinal program. Stanford went to the Final Four in 1990-92, winning twice. Then the Cardinal went again in 1995-97 and lost each time in the semifinals. Now, the Cardinal have made a third consecutive trip -- having lost in the semis to UConn last year -- and are hoping to give Stanford (and the Pac-10) its first NCAA women's title in 18 years.
When the Cardinal beat Western Kentucky for the championship on April 5, 1992, Stanford sophomore Nneka Ogwumike, the star of Sunday's Cardinal semifinal victory over Oklahoma with 38 points, was still three months from her second birthday.
So, yes, there is that overall trophy gap between UConn (six NCAA titles) and Stanford (two). But Stanford senior Rosalyn Gold-Onwude said the Cardinal players must keep reminding themselves of the fact that this is about only one game, not the whole history of Stanford and UConn basketball.
"I think it always starts for us with a great scouting game plan," Gold-Onwude said. "I think that we are going to need a traditionally good game, like that we always expect from our big three [Pedersen, Jayne Appel, Ogwumike]. Maybe an exceptionally good game.
"Our guards are going to have to do their part. We can't turn the ball over. We have to box out. And we have to get back in transition, especially on Maya, because she's really running hard in transition. And stay with it, try to avoid their big runs and help each other out."
Pedersen said that while watching video Monday of December's game with UConn, she found herself getting irritated.
"There were a lot of hustle plays that we failed to win," she said. "Not boxing out, not following our scouting report. A lot of unintelligent plays that we can't do if we want to win this game."
Pedersen doesn't want Tuesday's game to carry a burdensome weight because this is her third appearance in the Final Four. Still
"It is a whole new experience because each year is a different team," Pedersen said. "However, this is three in a row. Not winning the national championship yet and being so close definitely is always on my mind as extra motivation. I don't want to forget about the last two years."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.