TEMPE, Ariz. -- Before Sunday's game at Arizona State, Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer suggested her team had learned as much in three losses as in 14 wins this season. And after doing some remedial work in the first half against the Sun Devils, the Cardinal eventually erased any lingering sting from a lost weekend in Los Angeles.
Two weeks after VanDerveer's team dropped games at both UCLA and USC -- the first time in 14 years Stanford came out of Los Angeles without a win -- it overcame an early 14-point deficit and held off No. 25 Arizona State 60-56. The win kept Stanford within two games of first place Cal heading into a Jan. 26 showdown in Palo Alto to close out the first half of the Pac-10's home-and-home schedule.
"I liked our second half a lot better than our first half," VanDerveer said. "This is a tough place to play; we knew that coming in. I thought they had a very enthusiastic crowd, their team played really hard, they got us down."
Stanford remains the only team to beat Tennessee, the only team to win at Rutgers and one of only two teams to come within 20 points of Connecticut after a 66-54 loss in November. But in a league that struggles to get much more than its scores noticed by the chunks of the map two and three hours ahead of its outposts, the losses at UCLA and USC raised eyebrows and old biases elsewhere. Were the Cardinal really a championship contender?
"That weekend really helped us," VanDerveer countered. "Not that you want to lose games, but like in our UCLA game, I call it going from being the hunter to the hunted. And we really didn't make that adjustment well. We did not have solid guard play, in terms of making good decisions. In our UCLA game, our five starters each had three turnovers and we ended up with 18 turnovers. And quite honestly, we were playing against big bodies -- UCLA is very big and they're very athletic. They played us very physical and they played very well."
Substitute Arizona State for UCLA and you had a fair synopsis of the first half in Tempe. Getting much better production out of posts Lauren Lacey and Sybil Dosty than they had against Cal three days earlier, the Sun Devils raced to an early lead. By halftime, the Cardinal were on the wrong end of a 21-16 rebounding margin -- Arizona State's Kayli Murphy had 10 all on her own -- and had committed seven turnovers offset by just seven assists. With Charli Turner Thorne's team in a 3-2 zone that VanDerveer said she had never seen out of Arizona State, Stanford shot just 32 percent and settled for 11 3-point attempts out of 25 total field goal attempts in the opening 20 minutes.
Sophomore guard JJ Hones was partially responsible for the poor shooting numbers, missing three of her four 3-point attempts in the first half, but that didn't stop her coach from leaving the substitute on the floor for 19 minutes in the second half. Hones finished the game with just three points and two rebounds but also five assists against zero turnovers. That effort gave her 32 assists against just three turnovers in the team's first eight conference games, an assist-to-turnover ratio bordering on historic for a team that has been otherwise average by VanDerveer's standards in that category.
Hones wasn't solely responsible, but it's no coincidence that Stanford's offense settled down in the second half and started finding Kayla Pedersen (5-of-8 in the second half) and Jillian Harmon (3-of-4 in the second half) in space with her on the court.
"JJ obviously is coming off the injury (an ACL tear against Cal last season), but she's very steady for us," VanDerveer said. "More than anything, she gives a real calmness to our team. She takes care of the ball; I know what she's going to do. We just need her to help us maybe a little bit more defensively, but she played really poised. And that I think is a good thing for our team."
Perhaps not so good, at least looking beyond Sunday's outcome, was the fact that Candice Wiggins, Jayne Appel and Pedersen combined for 46 of the team's 60 points. That trio has produced 59 percent of the team's points this season, including 77 percent in Sunday's game, 63 percent against Connecticut, 68 percent against Tennessee and 87 percent against Rutgers. Carrying that burden might partially explain why Wiggins is shooting 40.8 percent this season -- she consistently shot between 46 and 48 percent her first three seasons.
"I have the ultimate confidence in her, in terms of knocking down shots, but I think she has been pressing a little bit," VanDerveer said before Sunday's game, advancing the hypothesis that Wiggins also might have the suggestions and instructions of at least three coaches bouncing around her head after playing for two national teams over the summer.
"I also think perimeter shooting sometimes is contagious," VanDerveer continued. "And as [Rosalyn Gold-Onwude] gets her shot going as JJ is shooting her shot better, as we change things up a little bit, I think it will come around. And I just have the ultimate confidence that she will make the shots that we need when we need them."
Wiggins did just that against Arizona State. Her fall-away jumper and two free throws in the final 1:11 pushed the lead to 57-51 -- just enough to withstand a Dymond Simon jumper and Briann January's 3-pointer that came off Wiggins' own offensive foul. And after settling for four 3-point attempts while rarely putting the ball on the floor in the game's opening 10 minutes, Wiggins attacked off the dribble with more regularity in the second half. It didn't show in the point distribution on this day, but if she does the same on a consistent basis the rest of the season, it could open up scoring chances for players like Harmon, Jeanette Pohlen, Morgan Clyburn and freshman Ashley Cimino.
When it was over, VanDerveer and Wiggins shared a joyful embrace after beating the team that has been their most consistent league nemesis in recent years. After wrapping up practice the day before, the coach commented that she's enjoying this group of players as much as any she can remember and that shows.
"I thought our team showed some heart," VanDerveer said. "We showed some toughness. We stayed together really well, and I'm really proud of how we did on the road."
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.