Commentary

Stage set for UConn-Stanford clash

Game we've all been waiting for finally arrives with both teams playing at high level

Originally Published: December 29, 2010
By Mechelle Voepel | ESPN.com

STOCKTON, Calif. -- Two days before their high-profile meeting, UConn and Stanford were both in the Golden State conducting somewhat different business the same way.

For the Huskies, it was a rock-star visit to Pacific, showing the Tigers and their fans how the other half lives in women's basketball. Actually, more just how the Huskies, in particular, live. An 85-42 triumph was UConn's 90th victory in a row.

[+] EnlargeMaya Moore & Nnemkadi Ogwumike
AP PhotoMaya Moore and UConn beat Nnemkadi Ogwumike and Stanford 53-47 in April for the Huskies' second straight NCAA title.

For Stanford, Tuesday's tuneup was supposed to be more a showdown of its own. The Cardinal were host to Xavier, a game expected to be fueled somewhat by lingering emotion from last season's Elite Eight thriller between those programs.

But either the Musketeers came down with severe amnesia (highly improbable) or just showed up at Maples Pavilion disappointingly flat (yep, that's what it looked like). Xavier, ranked No. 4, fell 89-52 to Stanford, ranked No. 8 after losses at DePaul and Tennessee last week.

So both games were blowouts, which is not at all what's anticipated when the Cardinal host the Huskies at 9 p.m. ET on Thursday (ESPN2).

"I don't think any of us think we're going in there Thursday night and can have our way and do whatever we want with them," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said after beating Pacific. "I don't think anybody will be surprised if we don't win Thursday. That's what the whole hubbub is now: When will we lose?"

As has been oft-repeated, Stanford is the most recent team to have defeated the Huskies. The Cardinal did that in the 2008 Final Four national semifinals. And that reflects the very good but not great fortunes of the Cardinal for the past several years: That win didn't get Stanford the NCAA title, just entry into the championship game.

Stanford lost that '08 final to Tennessee, lost in the 2009 national semis to UConn and then lost in last season's NCAA final to the Huskies again.

"It has become something you look forward to every year," Auriemma said of UConn-Stanford matchups. "You know how that happens? It's because you play them a lot of times in a short period of time."

And since the UConn-Tennessee series was shut down by the Orange side after the 2007 season, the spotlight on big-program rivalries shifted to this East Coast-versus-West Coast matchup.

Thursday's game is an advanced sellout at Maples, a familiar site for a big-game atmosphere. On Tuesday, though, UConn created that all on its own by visiting Pacific and treating the Stockton community to a taste of what's a regular occurrence in Connecticut.

[+] EnlargeJeanette Pohlen
AP Photo/Paul SakumaSenior Jeanette Pohlen and Stanford are the last team to beat UConn, as the Cardinal topped the Huskies in the 2008 Final Four.

It was the first sellout for women's basketball at Pacific, a program that has never appeared in the NCAA tournament. To suggest for the 6,150 fans at the Spanos Center that UConn was like the circus coming to town is to say that in the most flattering way. No clowns, just the finest of high-wire performers on display.

Pacific player Kendall Rodriguez acknowledged she had a moment or two of recognition during the game, like, "Wow, that really is Maya Moore guarding me."

But the Tigers actually acquitted themselves very well, displaying an aggressive mindset rather than being star-struck. The latter would have been understandable, considering how out-of-the-ordinary this feeling was for Pacific.

It was like people used to living in a small apartment suddenly getting a chance to spend the night in a sprawling mansion that -- for a very brief time -- becomes their home.

"They didn't have to play us here," Pacific coach Lynne Roberts said of UConn. "But Coach Auriemma and their staff, they get it. They understand what they are to the women's game, and they're big advocates for it.

"So am I. And the chance to bring them here and showcase the best of women's basketball for this community is priceless."

About a two-hour drive -- in moderate traffic -- west of Stockton, the community of Palo Alto sometimes takes for granted its perennial success in so many sports, including women's hoops. The Cardinal have been to the Women's Final Four the past three years, and nine times overall.

But last season's trip to San Antonio looked seriously in jeopardy in the regional final between Stanford and Xavier. The Musketeers had their chances -- including two agonizing late misses -- but ultimately lost on a coast-to-coast buzzer-beating layup by Stanford's Jeanette Pohlen.

Back for her final collegiate season, Pohlen had 19 points, nine rebounds and six assists against Xavier on Tuesday. Teammate Nneka Ogwumike had 23 points and 11 rebounds. The Cardinal really did everything well: having as many 3-pointers, eight, as turnovers, and outrebounding a big Xavier team 44-41.

Stanford doesn't see this matchup with UConn as a referendum on the rest of the Cardinal's season. But Stanford does hope Thursday can be the team's second statement game in a row. Ending the streak, of course, would be quite a loud statement.

"Connecticut is a very different team than Xavier, almost night and day in terms of their style of play," Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said. "You'll see one of the best college players ever to play the game [Maya Moore]. We'll learn more about our team, win or lose.

"This is why we play these games: To let us know where we're at. I told our team this is like the NCAA tournament. We're very excited to play Connecticut. Obviously, you couldn't look past anybody, but our team is looking forward to it."

Everybody who follows women's basketball has been doing that for months. And after the way both teams played Tuesday, the stage really is set.

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.