- Michelle Smith, Contributor, espnW.com
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STANFORD, Calif. -- As showdowns go, Saturday's Connecticut-Stanford game at Maples Pavilion was a failure. As a fact-finding mission, it was illuminating.
Geno Auriemma now knows that for as much offensive talent as he has assembled, that for as many nights as his team dances around triple digits, he can lean on defense to win some big games. And he can lean on Stefanie Dolson as hard as he ever has.
He also surely understands, after a shocking 61-35 shellacking of No. 1 Stanford -- ending the Cardinal's 82-game home winning streak and handing Tara VanDerveer the worst home loss of her 26-year tenure on The Farm -- that his team is a legitimate challenger, perhaps even the favorite over Baylor, to win the national championship in April.
It wasn't that the Huskies won there -- their first victory over Stanford at Maples -- that was so stunning. It was the how they did it, reducing one of the nation's proud programs to rubble for one day in front a full house. Connecticut pinned Stanford to record lows for field goal percentage (19.3) and total field goals (11) and held the top-ranked Cardinal's total scoring output to a lower number than the College of Charleston or Colgate had scored against the Huskies.
"We knew we were going to have to play our best defensive game," said Dolson, who finished with 10 points and 14 rebounds but was most lauded for her stellar one-on-one defensive effort against Cardinal All-American Chiney Ogwumike. "We came out with a great mentality of buckling down, not letting girls get in front of us and hit 3s and not letting Chiney get easy shots. I'm proud of what we did."
What VanDerveer learned puts her program on shakier ground.
The team that proved balanced enough to beat Baylor in mid-November and gritty enough to come up with road wins at South Carolina and Tennessee just last week now looks shaken and disturbingly one-dimensional.
No longer being the No. 1 team in the country, a mantle that almost assuredly goes to the Huskies, is the least of the Cardinal's issues.
"It was a bad day," VanDerveer said. "It's a late-December game, and it's a measuring stick. We were exposed in a lot of different ways."
Short memories will do the Cardinal no good here. There will be no putting away the unpleasantness of this day, an unmistakable letdown not only to the Cardinal but also to the 7,300 people in Maples and a national television audience, all of whom wanted to see the top two-ranked teams in the country battle to the wire and instead got a disheartening blowout.
"I don't think I've experienced something like this at this moment, especially with a great crowd here," said Ogwumike, who finished with 18 points and 13 rebounds for the Cardinal.
But those were tough, tough gains. Ogwumike went 6-for-22 from the floor and was taken far out of her comfort zone by the defensive effort of Dolson, who blocked out Ogwumike valiantly and finished with 14 rebounds.
"This is a lot of fuel to the fire," Ogwumike said. "That Connecticut team we played for 40 minutes was the standard, and the great thing is we've experienced the standard."
The work that Dolson was doing on Ogwumike, with the help of double- and triple-teams at times, was complemented by the Huskies' other players, who pressured Stanford ballhandlers, forced 14 turnovers and shut the spigot on the Cardinal's perimeter shooting; Stanford was just 2-for-14 from beyond the arc.
But Dolson's effort was the key to the game.
"I had a lot of good information on Chiney, and I was able to kind of read what she was going to do," said Dolson, who reshaped her body and improved her conditioning the past couple of seasons. "It feels great knowing that two years ago I couldn't have done what I did out there, and it feels great to know that what I did paid off."
Connecticut led 31-13 at the half and wouldn't let the struggling, frustrated Cardinal closer than 15 points in the second.
The Huskies finished with their lowest scoring output of the season (63 points against Maryland was the previous low), but it was still plenty thanks to the defensive effort. Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis finished with 19 points. Dolson, Kelly Faris and Bria Hartley added 10 each.
Aside from Ogwumike, no Stanford player scored in double figures. Take her 6-for-22 out of the box score and the rest of the Stanford lineup was a dismal 5-for-35 from the floor.
VanDerveer was not willing to concede that this loss might be a good thing for her team.
"No, I don't think this is a good thing, to be so ineffective in so many areas," she said. "It was extremely difficult and extremely frustrating. This is one game, but I think the question is valid: Which team are we?
"Baylor and Connecticut are both great teams. We have to decide if we are going to be a great team."
The Cardinal will have to decide quickly, with a brutal opening stretch to the conference season that includes games against No. 23 Colorado, Utah, No. 8 Cal and No. 17 UCLA in the next three weeks.
Connecticut heads north to play a struggling Oregon team before returning to Gampel Pavilion to open the Big East schedule at home against Notre Dame next Saturday.
As much as Connecticut's win is easily placed in the payback file after Stanford snapped the Huskies' 90-game winning streak in this gym two years ago, Saturday's meeting was never really about that. Just a bonus, really.
"Two years ago [was] a national event, and I don't think this was a national event," Auriemma said. "We beat a really good Stanford team on their home court, and they happen to have won a lot of games at home. For us to win a game here, in late December, it's no more than just a big win against a really good team."
For Stanford, it's a reality check of the most painful kind.