- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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TAMPA, Fla. -- The Final Four usually happens to players. It's the reward for weeks of outstanding basketball and years of hard work in less spectacular surroundings.
But Candice Wiggins is happening to the Final Four, just like she happened to Stanford.
One day before the Cardinal play Connecticut in Sunday's first semifinal (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET), Wiggins added to an already legendary postseason run by capturing the Wade Trophy in a surprise decision over Tennessee's Candace Parker. Already the proud owner of two of the most prolific performances in NCAA tournament history -- scoring 44 points against UTEP in the second round and 41 points against Maryland in the Elite Eight -- Wiggins added the hardware awarded to the player who best combines performance, character and leadership.
"She's just really a special person, and I'm really excited for her," Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said. "We probably don't like using this word, but she's a great role model for young women. She's so honest with her emotions, and that seems to be a big part of what makes basketball so special is she shows her emotion and she shows it so honestly."
Despite the recent surge in attention directed her way, the Stanford senior is hardly a shooting star blazing briefly through the postseason sky. One of only seven four-time State Farm All-Americans in women's college basketball history, she has been playing the game as well as anyone in the country for the past four seasons.
She just has been doing it in the wrong time zone to capture the same attention paid to a parade of stars from Seimone Augustus to Ivory Latta and Lindsey Harding to Parker and Maya Moore.
It was Wiggins, just a sophomore at the time, who ended Connecticut's run of three consecutive national championships in 2005 and launched the Huskies' Final Four drought, which will end only when the game tips off Sunday. The best player on the court in an emphatic 76-59 win over the Huskies in the Sweet 16 three years ago, she scored a team-high 21 points that night. She is the all-time leading scorer for Stanford and the Pac-10, yet she still ranks ninth all-time in assists and second in steals for the Cardinal. She's even No. 12 all-time among the school's rebounders, despite a frame more parts wispy than warrior.
But as VanDerveer suggested, it's not just what Wiggins does on the court that has made her the star of the past three weeks. Indeed, in a Final Four that also includes Parker, Moore and Sylvia Fowles, star power is as easy to find as humidity in Tampa.
What separates Wiggins is her selflessness, the collective joy that poured out in her teary laughter after Stanford beat Maryland, the intensely individual fire that fueled her virtuoso performance in the 40 minutes preceding that increasingly famous interview.
It's difficult not to marvel at the others; it's even more difficult not to root for Wiggins.
"We've had some great players at Stanford, some All-Americans," longtime associate coach Amy Tucker said. "But Candice is by far the most low-maintenance All-American we've ever had. She brings no drama to the locker room, no drama to the court. She just goes out and competes and just plays hard. And that's it. She doesn't need a lot of attention; she doesn't need to draw attention to herself for off-the-court stuff. She just really has it together. Obviously, that sets the tone for the rest of our team."
Her effect on a team isn't just a recent phenomenon. Just ask Connecticut senior Charde Houston, who first met the fellow San Diego native when they were about 11 years old. Wiggins was so much better than her peers at the time that she was playing with a boys traveling team. She joined Houston's team for a tournament in Los Angeles and promptly scored just about every point. But like now, it wasn't necessarily Wiggins' basketball skills that left an impression.
"She hasn't changed a bit," Houston said. "She's still the most spirited person you will ever meet in your life; she's so bubbly. And if you're having a bad day, you can definitely count on her to boost your spirits."
Houston and Wiggins stay in touch, swapping childhood stories and recollections via the marvel of instant messaging, but the latter's Stanford teammates are now the ones reaping the benefits of her infectious personality every day and every game.
"When Candice scores and does something amazing, like a 40-point performance, you don't see her running to the stands or making faces at the other team's band, like some other top players will," Stanford's Rosalyn Gold-Onwude said. "Candice immediately runs to us. She allows us to be a part of her success. And when I say that, we definitely feel like we're a part of it; it gives us confidence. It gives us energy."
Just as Wiggins has been too good for too many years to consider this a breakthrough performance, her team deserves better than to be thought of as the second half of "Candice Wiggins and the Cardinal," as if they were basketball's E Street Band. Jayne Appel and Kayla Pedersen might already be the best frontcourt in basketball, and Appel is the geezer of the two -- as a sophomore. JJ Hones and Gold-Onwude both could start at point guard for just about any of the teams wishing they were in Tampa. Paired, they give Stanford tremendous ball security, defense and increasingly dangerous outside shooting.
And yet, to a player, each of the other four members of the Cardinal's starting five eagerly, happily credits Wiggins with providing both the points and the passion to spark the run that has taken them to the program's first Final Four in more than a decade.
"I feel like Candice, she'll go for a layup and get fouled -- and maybe it's just like any other layup and the score is 8-2 -- but she'll just get so excited about it that it really makes you excited to be out on the court and out playing," Hones said. "If you ever forget your purpose in being out on the court, you know you're out there to get a job done, but it can be fun as well."
Wiggins is the daughter of the late Alan Wiggins, a former major league baseball player who died of AIDS-related complications in 1991, when his daughter was just a month shy of her fourth birthday. Her mother, Angela, and older brother, Alan Jr., offered plenty of family during her formative years, but Wiggins also has found support from the coach who brought her to Stanford.
"Tara and Candice are really close," Tucker said. "She's had great relationships with other players, whether it's Jennifer Azzi, Sonja Henning or Kate Starbird, but I think she's probably had the closest relationship to Candice. And maybe that just has more to do with what Candice needs, not so much as a player but off the court, in terms of a mentor -- someone that's there for her, someone who has her back, someone to help her through some situations. So Candice, there's more of a need there than maybe other people had."
So, how do you sum up what makes one player so special to her teammates, her coaches and her sport?
"I don't know," VanDerveer began, before she paused in search of it. "She's Candice."
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
15dBonnie D. Ford