- Michelle Smith, Contributor, espnW.com
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STANFORD, Calif. -- The Stanford players called this game their "basketball final." Connecticut might be setting the curve these days, but on Saturday, the Cardinal passed their test and maybe even got an A.
Faced with the biggest challenge since playing the second game of the season at top-ranked UConn, Stanford withstood a late scoring drought and a Tennessee rally to hang on for a 76-70 win over the No. 3-ranked Lady Vols at Maples Pavilion.
While the victory has to leave the No. 6 Cardinal (10-1) feeling good about where they are heading as the holiday break arrives, Tennessee fell from the ranks of the unbeaten.
The Lady Vols, in fact, have lost 13 straight road games against teams in the top 10, a run dating to the 2008 season, the last season the Lady Vols (10-1) won the national title.
The Lady Vols don't lack for young talent, depth or versatility. But what seems to be missing at this point is a great player, say the kind that Stanford has.
Chiney Ogwumike had a monster game for the Cardinal, finishing with 32 points and a season-high 20 rebounds, the first 30/20 game of her illustrious career.
Her dominating performance harkened back to the game big sister Nneka had against Tennessee two years ago as a senior, when she put up 42 points and 17 rebounds against Pat Summitt's Lady Vols in front of the Maples home crowd.
"Actually," said Tennessee coach Holly Warlick, who was a Lady Vols assistant that season, "[Chiney] probably played better than Nneka."
Her own coach called her the best player in the country.
"This game really boiled down to we had Chiney," Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said. "I can't imagine that there's a better player in the country. She's a warrior."
Ogwumike said she was nervous when she woke up on Saturday morning, so she called her big sister, who is playing overseas in China, to get some advice.
"[Nneka] said to think about something that makes me happy," Chiney Ogwumike said. "So I was just thinking about playing with her, and the legacy [of playing Tennessee]."
Stanford has won four of the past five games in this yearly series.
Ogwumike was Tennessee's biggest problem -- she finished with 15 field goals and 11 offensive rebounds. The Lady Vols knew they had to stop her, but they couldn't do it.
"She is the heart and soul of that team," Warlick said. "She was just a force inside that we had trouble with all night. Rebounding is effort and positioning and knowing where the ball is coming off, and that's what Chiney does. She's just at the right place at the right time."
But Ogwumike was hardly the only issue.
Stanford continued to turn in the kind of well-rounded effort that bodes well in a couple of months. Freshman Lili Thompson finished with a career-high 14 points, junior Taylor Greenfield added 11 and junior point guard Amber Orrange finished with nine points, none bigger than the drive off the dribble to score with 25.8 seconds to go. She hit her free throw to complete the three-point play and Stanford was able to exhale after Tennessee had cut the lead to 70-68 with an 8-0 run in the final five minutes.
Led by Greenfield off the bench with three of them, Stanford hit seven 3-pointers, many of them at times when the Lady Vols appeared to be closing in. Greenfield's 3-pointer at the halftime buzzer gave the Cardinal a 37-29 lead.
Stanford, which led by as many as 12 points in the first half, cut off Tennessee's transition game, holding the Lady Vols to six fast-break points and turning 14 turnovers into 22 points.
But the difference was on the boards, where Stanford outrebounded Tennessee 43-30, thanks in large part to Ogwumike's effort. It was the first time the Lady Vols had been outrebounded this season.
"Tara told us, 'If we rebound, we win,'" Ogwumike said.
With UConn dominating the national picture and, frankly, looking heads and shoulders above everybody else, the pressure is on the top teams to improve -- rapidly and significantly -- if there is a hope of turning this season into something other than a Huskies coronation.
"I'm glad it's early in the year, so we can adjust and get better," Warlick said.
There's nothing more than coaches hate than looking ahead. Well, that and maybe talking about another team. But UConn has to loom large over the elite ranks in women's basketball right now.
VanDerveer understands the task at hand.
"We are a different team now than six weeks ago," VanDerveer said. "For us, a lot of it is getting more people healthy. Today was the first day we've had everybody cleared to play and dressed. We have a lot of work to do. We are not going to be resting on our laurels.
"I'm very positive about all the good things that happened, but I'm also realistic … we can get a lot better in three months."