Monday night in front of a wildly enthusiastic and adoring crowd at Maples Pavilion, Candice Wiggins played one of the finest games of her fabulous career to lead the Cardinal over a talented and game UTEP squad and into the Sweet 16. It was her last game at Maples and her performance left a lasting impression. The final score was Stanford 88, UTEP 54, Wiggins 44. The Stanford offense was getting Wiggins easy layups and open three-point shots, which she knocked down with ease. Throw in a few acrobatic drives, a pull up jumper or two, and some free throws, and you end up with a smooth 44 points, a total that tied Kate Starbird's Stanford single-game scoring record and was also the third highest point total ever recorded in an NCAA tournament game. Wiggins also contributed 10 rebounds, 8 assists and 3 steals for a near triple-double. The woman knows how to make an exit. Fortunately it was not the sort of exit many had feared with the memory of last season's ultra-painful second round home loss to Florida State fresh in mind. No need to think of that loss any longer. Maples Pavilion is 100% "Home Sweet Home" again. Did you really think it wouldn't be? Wiggins was determined that her last moments in Maples would be joyful ones. "The greatest feeling is the way I feel with my teammates. I'll remember that, just the excitement of Maples. It's just been four tremendous years. This is my lasting impression of my experience here if you could summarize the feeling," said Wiggins. "This has been a year in the making. We were just really excited and me personally because it was my last game in Maples. I had a surprise, actually. My high school coach, she came to the stands and she waved to me. I almost had tears because she hasn't seen me play here in several years. You could tell, just looking into my teammates eyes, that we were ready to go. It's just a great feeling." UTEP coach Keitha Adams said her team had fun in California up until almost halfway through the game on Monday. "We played some quality basketball for 15 minutes and gave Stanford a test in that first half," commented Adams. "Then it slowly slipped away from us. Obviously they played a fantastic ballgame tonight. Probably the only thing that we can feel a little better about is if they go on and win a national championship. I told their coach, ‘Go win it all.'" Stanford would certainly be happy to oblige. "We're really proud of our team. I thought our team came out really focused, worked extraordinarily hard on the defensive end. UTEP is a really explosive team and they're really capable. Our team worked really hard defensively and that set the tone for the game. Candice had just a spectacular game. At the last Pac-10 tournament game, she had a great game. I think she just wanted to top it off. What an absolutely phenomenal player and person," said Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer. "Jayne (Appel) went 9-9. Kayla (Pedersen) rebounding the way she did. Our big three really put the team on their backs and other people made some nice plays." Yes, that's right-Appel was perfect again. This perfection is becoming a habit. Appel went 9-9 from the field and 2-2 from the free throw line for 20 points with 5 rebounds and 6 assists. It was quite a weekend for Appel, who scored 53 points in the two games and went 23 for 28 from the floor. Appel may not always get as much attention as her production warrants when spectators get lost in the perfumed clouds of love for Wiggins, but Appel was just about as spectacular and the long Wiggins to Appel pass and driving layup against the Miners was one of the highlights of the weekend. Appel just makes it look too easy too often-just catch the ball and pop it in the basket. The actual degree of difficulty is not fully appreciated. Three-pointers and swooping drives draw more notice but Appel doesn't seem to mind. She is happy to be the inside yin to the outside yang of Wiggins. She also likes the pep talks. Wiggins is getting as famous for her pep talks as her coach is for interesting basketball sayings (Ask about squirrels!). Said Appel, "Actually I told Kayla (Pedersen) before the game that I was kind of nervous, but I looked over at Candice and she's fine. She has 40 in her. Before the game Candice just gets us really focused and really gets our team in the right mindset, telling us that we've worked really hard all year to play in this game and there is no tomorrow so leave it all on the floor." Kayla Pedersen was 5-9 on Monday including 1 three-pointer. The freshman forward snared 11 rebounds and dished out 3 assists. Pedersen's 11 points and 11 rebounds were no doubt a tribute to her teammate, #11. Freshman guard Jeanette Pohlen threw herself around with reckless abandon to score 5 points and collect 7 rebounds, many of them the banging in traffic variety. Pohlen has been providing a great deal of hardnosed play off the bench all year, and like guard Rosalyn Gold-Onwude, who has found a niche as a perimeter defender, Pohlen has been quietly intent on doing those ever present and always critical "little things" that coaches love. Sophomore guard JJ Hones did not have one of her better days taking care of the ball, but did contribute 3 assists and hit 2-5 three-point shots, which is a good sign for future games, when her shooting will become critical as the Card's other offensive options encounter stronger defenses. Pedersen, Pohlen, Hones, and Gold-Onwude did not play in last year's devastating loss to Florida State. Offered Pedersen, "The returners were a little antsy before the game, but I don't have that memory and I hope to never have that memory. I think that overall everybody was just really calm. I didn't feel the pressure. Candice did a great job of keeping our heads straight." So what made everything flow so easily for the Card against UTEP? How did Wiggins wriggle her way free from a quick defense that likes to create turnovers and trouble? "I think it's just more about our team offense, just the way we execute," explained Wiggins. "It's not just me. We want to look inside and you have to respect Jayne inside, you have to respect JJ on the perimeter, you have to respect Kayla in the high post. When they are guarding us, they are focusing on those players so I have the opportunity to score. It's really about being patient and letting the offense work for me instead of forcing things." Many of Wiggins' layups were on backdoor cuts featuring sweet passes from Jillian Harmon, Appel or Pedersen in the high post. The Card were able to make that play time and time again. Said Tara VanDerveer, "That's really just our offense. That's not like a set play per se. In our offense we're looking to go inside and then we either go to the person at the top of the key or to the person at the free throw line. We're reading the defense. If they're denying Candice, we look to go back door. Candice is the beneficiary of some great passing. Jayne and Kayla just put it on the money. Morgan has made that pass too. This year's team has worked really hard on taking what the defense gives them. And if they play a different way then Candice will come out and if they went behind screens she's a very intelligent player and she hits some threes. It wasn't anything we ran off the set. I really think our team tonight played with a purpose. We didn't take bad shots. We had some turnovers that I didn't like, but for the most part we executed very well." From the beginning of the season the watchword for this team has been "gritty." They have come back when down in games (Temple and Utah for instance) and when down in the Pac-10 standings. They tend not to let teams back in the game once the Card have a lead. They frequently start strong. They win the tough games. There has been a conscious effort to be mentally tougher, which is what grittiness really means. Stated VanDerveer about the Card's toughness, "Every year we want to have a very talented team and a tough team, but that has been the focus of this year's team. These three young ladies right up here (Wiggins, Appel, and Pedersen) are the ones that bought in and said all right, this is how we are going to do it, like being in better shape. I thought we ran on teams. We ran on UTEP tonight. We've been running well all season. They're willing to do whatever it takes. You can't talk about toughness, you have to get out there and battle and not back down. There isn't any tougher player than Candice. Our inside game with Jayne and Kayla is as tough as it has ever been. Having Ros and JJ back in the guard spots… Jillian getting healthy… You have to have talent but I think that mental determination is really key. If we haven't had it, I think it's the fault of the coaches and not the players that we've had so maybe it's that the coaches have adopted that too." As they head to Spokane to face Pittsburgh in the Sweet 16 game the Cardinal still have that toughness in spades but the team on the floor now is not the same one that beat Tennessee-it's better. Outside shooting has become more reliable. The guard roles have been better defined for Hones and Gold-Onwude so that the floor leadership is more stable and the perimeter defense stronger. The three-guard lineup has been beneficial for the Card's ball handling and shooting while allowing forward Jillian Harmon to shore up the post rotation and add her rebounding and hustle where it is needed most. Appel on the block and Pedersen in the high post have become an even more dangerous duo and the passing has been much sharper both to and from the post spots. Offensive execution against an array of defenses has improved a lot. And perhaps most importantly, Wiggins is turning it on at just the right time. Perhaps some of the "pressing" that afflicted her off and on throughout the season was simply the result of her knowing how tough it can be to get a team to these short but momentous NCAA tournament moments. Now that Wiggins has made it safely to the end with such an excellent season in the books so far, there is nothing left to weigh on her except the very next game. In the big games lately, such as the Pac-10 tournament final and this game against UTEP, her play has soared under "one-and-done" pressure. The Cardinal will need her to maintain this extraordinary energy. You need star power to advance in the NCAA tournament, and as great as Appel is or Pedersen will become, Wiggins is the senior engine of this team right now. And she and her teammates are generating their own strange kind of magic. One day the outside shooting is extraordinary and the scoring load shared. The next day Appel is the dominating presence. The day after that Wiggins goes berserk. Somebody else waves the magic wand each time out and the resulting performances are grand. A different hero each game, just like magic! Now maybe some other team will make some very powerful magic of their own to thwart the Card. That can always happen. But the elements are there for Stanford to make a run. If the Cardinal play well, they can beat anybody. Of course there is always that if, and it is indeed a big if. How about we change that to when the Card play well because when they've needed to step it up, they have. Even those who don't believe in magic might make an exception in this case. If you were in Maples on Monday night, you sure might believe in magic, strange or not. Can Wiggins pull a rabbit out of her hat (or an invitation to the Final Four)? Stranger things have happened.
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