STANFORD, Calif. -- As crazy as it sounds, Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer thinks Candice Wiggins' absence late in the regular season might actually help the Cardinal when it comes time for the NCAA Tournament.
Jayne Appel scored 24 points to help Stanford (No. 10 ESPN/USA Today, No. 8 AP) overcome an injury to its leading scorer and clinch at least a share of its seventh straight conference title with a 65-54 victory over UCLA on Thursday night.
"It's a good challenge for our team," VanDerveer said. "We can't do anything about it. We're not having a pity party and if we did nobody would show up anyway. ... I just think it's going to make us better. Sure, we want Candice out there. But that challenges other people to step up and I thought they did really well."
Wiggins, the two-time conference player of the year, missed the game with an injured hamstring. She will likely miss Sunday's regular-season finale and could even sit out next week's Pac-10 tournament as she tries to get healthy for the NCAA Tournament.
Wiggins, the Cardinal's leading scorer at 16.3 points per game, played only nine minutes last Thursday at Oregon State with an ankle injury and missed time earlier in the season with another ankle injury. Stanford is 4-0 without its star.
"I think everyone has to pick up a little bit of the slack without Candice," forward Brooke Smith said. "People feel more responsibility with their own roles. Hopefully, when she comes back that will carry over. We wish she was playing but we'll learn stuff when she's not."
Stanford (24-4, 16-1 Pac-10) is already assured the top seed in next week's Pac-10 tournament because it swept second-place Arizona State. The Cardinal can win the title outright with a Sun Devils loss at Arizona on Saturday or their own win Sunday against Southern California.
The Cardinal missed Wiggins against UCLA (7-10, 13-16), but used a late 11-2 run to take a 60-50 lead with 1:23 remaining and put the game away. Appel, the reigning Pac-10 player of the week, scored five points and blocked a shot during the run and is averaging 23.3 points and 12.3 rebounds per game over her last three contests.
"We just wanted to go inside to Jayne," forward Brooke Smith said. "She has an advantage in there and we were really trying to take care of the ball and get the ball inside to her."
UCLA went 1-for-6 from the field, committed two turnovers and had Amanda Livingston and Tierra Henderson miss front ends of one-and-ones during the stretch that decided the game.
"Amanda Livingston is the best free-throw shooter in the conference and she misses a front end of a one-and-one. Things like that just deflate you because that's what we do well," UCLA coach Kathy Olivier said.
With Wiggins watching in sweats, Stanford had no outside shooting threat. Wiggins had made nearly half of the Cardinal's 3-pointers this season, and Stanford made none without her -- ending a streak of 403 consecutive games with a 3-pointer.
Smith and Cissy Pierce each missed 3-point attempts, Stanford's only shots from long range all game.
"With Wiggins not on the floor, they're a different basketball team," Olivier said. "They don't do as much penetration and obviously they weren't shooting their 3s. But they'll attack you in other ways. Their other ways tonight were obviously their post players. They worked the ball inside to Brooke and Jayne and that really hurt us."
Smith added 14 points for the Cardinal.
Noelle Quinn scored 17 points to lead Bruins, who have lost four straight games. Lindsey Pluimer added 15.
Appel didn't start the game but came on to replace Kristen Newlin after just 48 seconds. Stanford used all three of its big players to start the second half -- Appel, Newlin and Smith.
That helped the Cardinal go on a 10-2 run early in the half to take a 40-33 lead. But UCLA responded with a 10-2 run of its own, going ahead 43-42 on Noelle Quinn's 3-pointer with 9:33 remaining.
Stanford missed 10 of its first 16 shots and turning the ball over 10 times in the first half. Appel scored eight of the Cardinal's final 12 points in the half to take a 30-29 lead at the break.
Sloppy play by UCLA kept Stanford in the game as the Cardinal committed 14 first-half turnovers and 13 personal fouls.
Stephanie White, Lin Dunn and Carolyn Peck know what it takes to succeed in women's basketball. Their return to the college level should boost the SEC and is good for the game overall.