NCAA Championship Preview: UConn vs. Stanford

After a long season, Stanford will finally get their shot to knock off the defending national champion and secure their place as the team that made history. The Cardinal took down Oklahoma with a 73-66 victory that saw sophomore sensation Nneka Ogwumike score a career-high 38 points and pull down 16 rebounds as the Card advanced to the championship game on Tuesday.

UConn comes into the finals as the Goliath of women's basketball, having won 77 straight games and preparing for their shot at back-to-back national championships. The Huskies come into the championship game after feasting on Baylor in a 70-50 win on Sunday, where All-Americans Maya Moore and Tina Charles combined for 55 points to set the stage for the biggest game of the season

The two are familiar foes, as quite a rivalry has been brewing between the two programs over the last few years. Stanford was the last team to beat UConn, taking them down in the Final Four two years ago, but UConn has had the upper hand in the last two matchups, as they took down Stanford 83-64 in last year's Final Four, and nabbed an 80-68 win in December in Hartford, Conn.

It seems only fitting that "Clash of the Titans" premiered this weekend, because basketball fans are in store for a good one down in San Antonio on Tuesday night - so let's crunch the numbers to see who will cut down the nets.

Oklahoma Recap and Reaction

It was Nneka's night on Sunday, of course, as she was a dominant force throughout the game, but Stanford once again had a few problems when Oklahoma rallied with some hot shooting in the second half. Looking across the board at the statistics, the Cardinal could have done a few things much better, especially from beyond the arc.

The Cardinal were 1-of-15 from three on Sunday, and they depended almost exclusively on Nneka in the post. While the Sooners were utterly incapable of stopping the sophomore, it is a cause for concern when Stanford's offense does not have multiple dimensions, even though Coach Tara VanDerveer was content to let the Card pound the ball to the hoop consistently. The Sooners got as close as three points with 49 and 16 seconds left in the game after trailing by as much as 16 during the second half. To me, it looked like a combination of some defensive fatigue - Nneka played 38 minutes, while both Jeannette Pohlen and Kayla Pedersen played all 40 - with an Oklahoma team that finally had found its stroke from the floor. When a team is shooting over 50 percent, as OU was during the second half, it's not fair to put too much blame on the defense.

All in all, I found this game hard to describe, because the Cardinal's performance seemed equally encouraging and discouraging. Nneka was utterly brilliant, the team passed very well (only seven turnovers), the rebounding was dominant (53 boards to OU's 41), and the defense was stifling, as the Sooners were unable to get to the basket and had to rely on midrange jumpers over and over again. But at the same time, the absence of other scorers, the below-average team shooting, and the amount of time Jayne Appel spent on the bench raised those questions that Stanford has had to face all season - can they beat UConn?

UConn Preview

UConn, for that matter, had a scare from Baylor before they pulled away, as the Bears went on a 12-2 scoring run to start the second half, cutting the Huskies' lead to only three points. After that run, though, the defending national champs solidly squashed the girls in gold and green, as they closed the last 15 minutes of the game with a 29-12 effort.

UConn's talent and capability are almost unfathomable in the world of basketball, as their average margin of victory is an eye-popping 36.1 points per game (by comparison, Stanford's is 23.4 PPG) and their five tournament wins have come by an average of 41.6 PPG. All-Americans Maya Moore and Tina Charles are a tandem that are borderline unstoppable, as they each average more than 18 points per game. UConn has experience, with seven juniors and seniors on the team, and they are the one big "L" on Stanford's resumé this year.

This will undeniably be Stanford's most stern test of the season, but if anybody is up to the challenge, it's the Cardinal. In their last meeting back in December, Stanford held the lead at halftime 40-38, a small victory, but faded down the stretch to fall by 12 points in the end. Since then, UConn has had no opponent play them as close as 12 points all season, and the Huskies do not take Stanford lightly.

The major questions Stanford must answer in this game will be how the Cardinal will match up with Tina Charles and Maya Moore. With Appel battling an injured ankle, it will be a major task for Kayla Pederson and Ogwumike to play good inside defense in order to stop a UConn offense that is predicated on a lot of spectacular ball movement and forcing defenders to make catch-22 decisions. I think a key player to watch defensively will be Rosalyn Gold-Onwude, who I expect to be facing off against Moore for much of the night. Ros has good speed, experience, and the tenacity to go the full 40 minutes against Moore, which frees up Nneka and Jayne to handle Tina Charles down low.

When all is said and done, Stanford might have to play an utterly perfect game to beat the Huskies though. UConn seems to be hitting their stride at the right time, and while Stanford will give the Huskies their closest game of the year, I think an ailing Appel is a big weakness that will ultimately cost the Cardinal the extra rebounds, possessions, and points that they need to pull off the upset.

Check back in after the championship to get all the best post-game wrap up right here on the Bootleg!


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