We are just a few days short of the 10-year anniversary of the last time Stanford and Connecticut met in the NCAA Tournament. In that 1995 meeting, the two teams collided in the semifinal game of the Final Four in Minneapolis, where a veteran Husky squad devastated and dominated a young Cardinal crew. The 87-60 woodshed job was a jarring end to Stanford's 30-win season. For Geno Auriemma and UConn, that game and 34th victory was a mere stepping stone toward history, as the Huskies cut down the nets two nights later for a heralded undefeated national championship season.
On that cold April 1 night in Minneapolis, two programs passed each other in the night. Their fortunes have been markedly different since.
That national semifinal game was the first of a string of three straight Final Fours for the Cardinal, so it may be difficult to call it the "end" of an era, but the era was certainly closing for Stanford. Tara VanDerveer and the Card have not been in a championship game since their last title in 1992, and they have not been in a Final Four since 1997. In sharp contrast, Auriemma's Huskies have risen to the top of the women's college basketball world, winning five national championships and twice scoring perfect undefeated season. While Stanford has not been to a Final Four in eight years, UConn has been in five straight Final Fours and are three-time defending national champs.
"In some respects, nobody was going to beat UConn that year," VanDerveer says of the 1995 semifinal meeting between the two teams. "They had great players and a great system for their team... That was their year. We were in trouble from the very beginning of that game. It was a great experience for our team to be in the Final Four, but we were not ready for that. We were a young group."
The Huskies were led by three All-Americans on that team, including senior consensus National Player of the Year Rebecca Lobo as well as junior Jen Rizzotti, who the following season would be named the AP Player of the Year and winner of the Wade Trophy. Stanford was as green as they had ever been, with three of their top five scorers either freshmen or sophomores: Kate Starbird (16.0 ppg, soph), Kristin Folkl (9.5 ppg, frosh) and Naomi Mulitauaopele (7.3 ppg, frosh). Stanford had six freshmen on that squad.
The veteran Huskies took advantage of their youthful opponents, attacking with unrelenting aggression and setting up a huge disparity at the charity stripe. UConn attempted 46 free throws in that game, to Stanford's mere five attempts.
There was a confidence that begat that aggression for the Huskies, and it was a strange contrast against how the two programs have played since. Stanford has had their best success in the last decade from physical play centered around talented frontcourts, while UConn has been a more skilled program that has executed from the perimeter. In a delicious twist of irony, the tables have been turned for the two teams this year.
"They are an extremely physical team," VanDerveer says of this year's UConn Huskies. "The rebound the heck out of the ball and go very hard inside. They are a little but un-Connecticut. This year's team reminds me a little more of the Tennessee teams that play so physically. Our team probably is a little more like the old Connecticut teams, who were skilled."
UConn has all of their best talent inside, with 6'0" junior forward Barbara Turner, 6'2" junior forward Ann Strother and 6'3" senior center Jessica Moore. That trio is the veteran core that not only are the top three players in terms of minutes for the Huskies, but they also account for 32.4 points and 14.4 rebounds per game. As a team, UConn outrebounds their opponents by nearly eight boards per game, and they are peaking in their physical style of play.
"In some ways I think they play an aggressive physical style like Arizona State. They rebound like Tennessee and they attack like USC," VanDerveer praises. "It's going to be a control game. I'm sure it will be the most physical game of the year for us."
"It's going to be a battle of wills - to be aggressive. If we don't step up and we're not physical - if we're not aggressive - then it's a done deal."
This type of opponent could hardly come at a worse time for the Cardinal. Not only are they a predominately skilled team this year their scoring and execution, but they also have not had their leading rebounder play in more than a month. Senior T'Nae Thiel is Stanford's one truly physical frontcourt presence on this team, and she last saw the court in February, when she broke a bone in her left foot against Oregon (2/24). Though she was cleared by the medical staff to play early last week, Thiel has not been allowed to practice.
"I think there is only one thing that our coaching staff and I have been concerned about," VanDerveer says of her senior center. "If her foot holds up, T'Nae will be fine. It's all about that foot."
VanDerveer gets heated and emotional when talking about Thiel and the famed foot. The coach's fear of reinjuring the foot has fueled the decision to keep Thiel off the practice floor this week, which should give cause for concern about the senior's readiness for such a big game. Thiel will play tonight not only without any game experience in more than a month, but she also lacks any timing or rhythm with her teammates from practices. As strong as her fear of reinjury, VanDerveer is adamant about the readiness of her senior post player.
"She will be 100% ready," the coach proclaims. "She's been conditioning the heck out of it... If that foot holds up, she's good to go. There is absolutely nothing else."
"I've been in situations before," says Thiel about the enormity of tonight's Sweet 16 against UConn. "I feel like I will be ready. I'm really familiar with our offense, so there aren't really any concerns. And I feel like a lot of Pac-10 teams prepared us for this game. There are not a lot of teams more physical than ASU or USC."
VanDerveer may be confident in Thiel, who averages a team-best 5.6 rebounds per game, for tonight, but that does not mean the coach is unconcerned about the threat the Huskies present for her Cardinal.
"We definitely have to rebound the ball better," says the 19-year Stanford head coach. "I know I sound like a broken record. Against some teams we can get away with it, but not against them."
That edict from VanDerveer is aimed at more than just Thiel. She expects senior Azella Perryman and sophomore Kristen Newlin, who both have picked up minutes during Thiel's absence, to play tough and aggressively. Perryman was actually slated to be the starter last Monday in Stanford's second round game against Utah, until the last second, when VanDerveer saw the Utes submit a starting lineup card with four guards. The Cardinal coach then made a quick switch to start Sebnem Kimyacioglu.
Kimyacioglu scored 13 points with red-hot shooting, and she has hit an amazing 6-of-9 from beyond the arc so far in this 2005 NCAA Tournament. Perryman was strong off the bench with 12 points and four boards in 22 minutes. Newlin had one of her best performances in recent weeks, hitting for eight points and grabbing six rebounds in just 10 minutes.
And then there is Brooke Smith. The redshirt sophomore transfer from Duke has had an amazing season, averaging 13.4 points and 5.4 rebounds per game - both stats ranking #2 on the team. The 6'3" forward/center also leads Stanford with 41 blocks on the year. But her sweet spot is a skilled game, shooting her renowned "Brooke Hook" with either hand near the basket. She is not a rough & tough player like Thiel, and that is where VanDerveer has been prodding her all year.
"Back in the spring, I told Brooke that she would average 15 points per game and six to eight rebounds per game for us. I told her, 'You are going to be our go-to block player,'" VanDerveer recalls. "I told her the one thing that stands in her way is toughness and adversity. She has gone beyond that."
"Now she gets double- or triple-teamed almost every play," the coach continues. "She is going to get clobbered in there against UConn."
10 years ago, the Cardinal were clobbered by the Huskies, getting outrebounded 52-43 and outshot at the free throw line 46-5. Stanford has been completely outclassed by UConn since, and if Tara VanDerveer wants to regain her footing in the college women's basketball landscape, then she has to turn the tables. Stanford cannot get pushed around tonight by UConn if they want to dust off the history books and write their names with a Final Four, for the first time in eight years.
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