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Friday, December 31, 2010
Updated: January 1, 12:24 PM ET
Cardinal cut into UConn's invincibility

By Mechelle Voepel
ESPN.com

Kayla Pedersen
Kayla Pedersen and Stanford polished off UConn and its 90-game winning streak.

STANFORD, Calif. -- Kayla Pedersen didn't have Cardinal red as her nail polish choice for this very important week of her senior season at Stanford. Instead, she was sporting a dark, sparkling … blue.

"I realized it was UConn and Xavier's color after I did it," Pedersen said, laughing.

Was it perhaps a subconscious effort to psych herself up for Stanford facing the No. 4 and No. 1 teams back to back Tuesday and Thursday? Uh, no, that wasn't the reason.

Knowing Geno Auriemma's track record, what happened Thursday shouldn't make anyone less doubtful that UConn can win a third consecutive championship. In fact, it might have been just what the Huskies needed. That said, it also was what the rest of the teams in the country needed. … The Cardinal did show that the Huskies can be defeated.

"This polish was 99 cents at the store," Pedersen said. "So I got it."

Such practicality is a Stanford hallmark. Which is why it wasn't surprising that the Cardinal had a measured reaction to their 71-59 victory over Geno Auriemma's Huskies on Thursday.

Stanford was excited and happy, but not overly so. Coach Tara VanDerveer wasn't making too big a deal about the Cardinal ending UConn's 90-game winning streak. She was proud of how her team had played, but she pointed out that this UConn team is trying to fill some big holes from graduation and injuries, and that to expect the Huskies to continue this season without ever skipping a beat was rather unrealistic.

"Look who they have: two freshmen in the starting lineup, and they come in here and this place is crazy," VanDerveer said of the sold-out Maples Pavilion. "And we have some young kids, too, but we're in our comfort zone here. I don't think they've played in a place like this with that young team.

"Geno knows that; he's realistic. [Freshman] Stefanie Dolson is not Tina Charles. We've played against Renee Montgomery, Tina Charles, Kalana Greene. So our team was looking out there and saying, 'Wow, this is looking better for us.'"

Even so, the Huskies still had Maya Moore. She had an off night Thursday, going 5-for-15 from the field for 14 points, and was not the sparkplug on defense that she normally is.

"I thought we showed moments of fight where we came together and were playing together," Moore said. "And then we would do something to hurt ourselves. I would make a defensive mistake. Then they'd get a layup, and their momentum would shift back to them.

"Playing at someone's home court in front of a packed house, momentum is so priceless. It's so valuable for the [visiting] team, and we just gave it away too many times."

Jeanette Pohlen
Jeanette Pohlen and No. 8 Stanford are expected to return to the top five in the rankings.

But other than the streak being over, does this loss mean anything substantial? Well, if nothing else, it gives this season a different feel.

The past two seasons, there was a sense of inevitability about the Huskies winning the NCAA title. Nothing shook that in 2008-09. Stanford at least challenged it in 2009-10, getting out to a lead at the break after an offensively awful first half for both teams in the NCAA title game.

But UConn was able to rally in that game for the victory, preventing Stanford from winning its first national championship since 1992. That loss stuck with the Cardinal and helped motivate the players over the summer.

VanDerveer pointed to conditioning as something they improved on, especially senior guard Jeanette Pohlen, who scored a career-high 31 points Thursday.

"She's in great shape," VanDerveer said. "As good as she was last year, she wanted to be better. She's worked a lot on her shot, she's running our team, she defends. She's off to a great start, but I think she can play even better."

Pedersen, who's playing alongside Pohlen for a fourth year, said, "She put this team on her back and basically told us, 'We're not losing today.' She's been great this whole season."

Moore has been that player for UConn, of course. But with her having a less-than-stellar night, the Huskies didn't get enough from other players. Junior Tiffany Hayes, in particular, struggled with just three points and one rebound.

"I'm not distraught about it," Auriemma said of the streak ending. "Winning that many games in a row is unheard of. [To lose] it takes a really good team -- probably on their home court -- to play really well, and for you to struggle. When you play good teams on the road and you struggle, you're supposed to get beat."

Of course, UConn's goal for this season wasn't to go undefeated. It's to win another national championship. Auriemma pointed out that a player like Hayes had never before lost a game in college. So as much as coaches talk in clichés about "learning experiences," this really will be that for most of the Huskies.

UConn won an NCAA title in 2003 after seeing a 70-game winning streak end; the Huskies finished that season with one loss. Knowing Auriemma's track record, what happened Thursday shouldn't make anyone less doubtful that UConn can win a third consecutive championship. In fact, it might have been just what the Huskies needed.

That said, it also was what the rest of the teams in the country needed. No other team can present the kind of size-at-every-position matchup problems to UConn that Stanford does, but the Cardinal did show that the Huskies can be defeated. Baylor almost did that Nov. 16 in Hartford, and now the remainder of the Huskies' opponents can look to both those results for fuel that UConn isn't unbeatable.

The remainder of the Big East slate and three nonconference foes -- North Carolina (Jan. 17 at Chapel Hill, N.C.), Duke (Jan. 31 at Storrs, Conn.) and Oklahoma (Feb. 14 at Hartford, Conn.) -- are what's left for the Huskies in the regular season.

The Cardinal are done with nonconference play for the regular season, and next up is the first of their two Bay Area rivalry games, at Cal on Sunday.

Hmmm … one of Cal's primary colors is dark blue, too, so perhaps Pedersen should keep that nail polish on for a while.

In fact, she might want to hold on to that little 99-cent bottle as a wonderfully kitschy reminder of one of the best nights in Stanford women's hoops history. UConn's amazing excellence was what elevated it to the event that it was, but the Cardinal stole the show.

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.