The last time Connecticut and Stanford met in the postseason, Connecticut won a 87-60 national semifinal that had repercussions far beyond that 1994-1995 season. The seminal victory would usher in a new era in women's basketball, catapulting the Huskies to five of the next 10 national titles and turning the program into the gold standard of the sport. In turn, Connecticut's dominance brought attention and publicity previously undreamed of to collegiate women's basketball, transforming the once fledging game into the national event it is today. While only time will tell whether Stanford's 76-59 regional semifinal victory over Connecticut will usher in similarly dramatic results, both for the Cardinal program and the sport as a whole, one can't help but be overcome with optimism after watching this Cardinal squad perform so beautifully.
While Stanford led much of the up-and-down first half, the Card never managed to stretch their lead past six. Connecticut took advantage, as the Huskies tightened the game in the middle of the first half, and went on a 7-0 run in the last three minutes of the half to jump out to a 33-27 halftime lead despite trailing much of the period. After a quick 14-8 start, Stanford looked shaky for much of the half, shooting an uncharacteristic 1-of-8 beyond the arc (including 0-of-4 from senior guard Kelley Suminski), yielding Connecticut several uncontested lay-ups and open jump shots, and allowing Connecticut's press to force 10 first-half turnovers. Freshman guard Candice Wiggins barely resembled her Second Team All-American self, as Stanford's leading scorer committed five turnovers and made only one field goal on the half.
Despite their miscues, however, Stanford only trailed by six at the break for several reasons. Every Stanford player fought hard on the boards against the larger and more physical Huskies. Five Cardinal grabbed at least two boards in the half as Stanford's 19 rebounds nearly matched Connecticut's 21, neutralizing what many felt would be Connecticut's largest advantage in the matchup. A healthy senior forward T'Nae Thiel, who would finish with two rebounds and five points in 15 minutes in her first action since fracturing a bone in her left foot a month ago, noticeably improved Stanford's rebounding.
Additionally, poor shooting, the Huskies' nemesis throughout the season, continued to plague the Huskies in the first half. Stanford played several feet off Connecticut's guards, yet the Huskies missed loads of open jump shots en route to 37.1% accuracy on the half, well below their 46.4% season average. Perhaps, in hindsight, Connecticut head coach Geno Auriemma regrets playing 10 players in a 20-minute period, as the ample substitution may have prevented the Huskies from finding offensive rhythm. Whatever the case, it's no stretch of the imagination to suggest that had Stanford received identical looks from the Huskies, the Card would have shot around 60% from the field and won the period by 20. Indeed, that's precisely how the second half would play out.
Six quick Cardinal points started the second half and knotted the game at 33. Redshirt sophomore Brooke Smith scored four of those points, showing great determination after Connecticut's first-half physical post presence forced Smith into long, fade-away attempts and, thus, uncharacteristic 2-of-7 first-half shooting. Smith, who leads the team with a 61.5% field goal percentage, would finish the game with eight points and an equally important nine rebounds.
After trading baskets over the next four minutes, fifth-year senior Susan King Borchardt drained a three that put the Cardinal ahead 43-41, a lead the Cardinal would never relinquish over the final 13 minutes. Borchardt would shoot a perfect 4-of-4 overall and 3-of-3 deep on the half. Wiggins would continue to play with aggression, drawing key fouls down the stretch, making seven consecutive free throws in the clutch and ending with 21 points. Suminski would rebound from her poor first half to end with 12 points and, similarly, senior forward Azella Perryman used a strong second half to finish with nine points and six rebounds. Overall, the Cardinal would shoot 58% from the field, 67% behind the arc and 81% from the free-throw line in the half.
This offensive explosion did more than just spur the Cardinal to 49-point second half, the most points the Huskies have surrendered in a half all season. The Cardinal's fireworks dramatically reversed the game's momentum, inspiring Stanford's defense and crippling the Huskies on the offensive end. In accordance with their game plan, Stanford continued to allow Connecticut open shots on the perimeter, but as Stanford started to surge, Connecticut started to panic. On the half, the Huskies would shoot only 18% deep and only 27% overall for their least accurate half of the season.
As the second half unfolded, fans grew to realize Stanford saved its best basketball for one of its most important halves in recent memory. That the Cardinal performed so well at such a critical juncture, even after the sub par first half, directly reflects the team's mental strength and the incredible coaching job of head coach Tara VanDerveer and the entire staff. Outside all the intangibles, though, perhaps this half more than any highlights the importance of Susan King Borchardt.
On the offensive end, Borchardt scored 11 points on perfect shooting and freed up her teammates for countless open looks. Defensively, Borchardt played most of the game matched against Connecticut's All-American, junior guard Ann Strother, and completely shut the Huskies' leading scorer down. Strother came into the game averaging 13 points on 42% shooting, yet Borchardt allowed her only four points on 2-of-8 overall shooting and 0-of-3 beyond the arc. Not to take away anything from the other Cardinal, all of whom played admirably, but Stanford could not have won this game without the contributions from its healed and healthy fifth-year senior.
Fittingly, then, Borchardt's uncontested lay-up with four seconds remaining gave the Cardinal its 76-59 final margin. Stanford's victory closes the chapter on a women's basketball dynasty, as Connecticut's runs of three consecutive national titles and 20 straight postseason victories now come to an end. Meanwhile, the Cardinal currently sport 23 straight wins, 22 by double digits. With Smith and Wiggins returning for multiple years, VanDerveer remaining at the helm, and loads of new talent coming into the program, one can't help but think Stanford stands at the brink of a perfect opportunity to start run of their own, a run to rival Connecticut's. However, with just hours to prepare for their next opponent, the #1 seed Michigan State Spartans (31-3), the Cardinal better not get caught up in the history, lest they ruin a perfect opportunity to create it.
Daniel Novinson is a freshman at Stanford University. He's broadcasting women's basketball on KZSU - listen along at kzsu.org or 90.1 FM. Daniel welcomes any feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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