Rematch about much more than revenge
UConn and Stanford both feel they have plenty to prove in Sunday's nightcap
ST. LOUIS -- Sure, you could condense this to a revenge rematch. This would be, say, the Twitter version of Connecticut vs. Stanford:
Reversal of fortune? Moore, Monty and Tina hope unbeaten No. 1 Huskies avenge 2008 national semifinal loss to Appel's Cardinal.
That wouldn't be inaccurate but it also would not capture the nuances of how Sunday's UConn vs. Stanford 2009 (ESPN, 9 p.m. ET) is different from the previous year's version in the Final Four. But perhaps "nuance" is too, um, nuanced a word.
Maybe the differences between their meeting in Tampa, Fla., an 82-73 Stanford victory, and now in the Gateway City are straightforward. The biggest difference is personnel. Both teams lost seniors, but the one missing for the Cardinal -- Candice Wiggins -- figured to be the bigger loss.
Nonetheless, Stanford is back in the Final Four, and the way the program got here this time is different, too.
"I think it was more of an expectation rather than some goal we hadn't achieved yet," Stanford center Jayne Appel said, comparing the '09 Final Four trip to '08. "This year we have the mindset that we weren't going to be happy unless we got here."
Appel herself is different -- a more skilled player with greater endurance. She watched tape of last year's NCAA title game loss to Tennessee and heard the commentators say she was "gassed" during that game. Instead of getting defensive about it, she agreed.
"I looked dead tired," said Appel, who has lost 15 pounds since last season. "It's kind of scary to me that I thought I was in good shape last year, and how much different a player I feel like I am this year."
UConn's Tina Charles also is referred to as "different this year" -- in a good way. Charles had her frustrations during her sophomore season, but has been much more the player coach Geno Auriemma envisioned this year.
Charles joined Appel -- plus UConn teammates Maya Moore and Renee Montgomery -- on the State Farm All-America team Saturday. (In fact, each team in the Final Four had at least one player selected, with Louisville's Angel McCoughtry and Oklahoma's Courtney Paris also honored.)
So, if the departed seniors, the Stanford mindset, Appel's fitness and Charles' elevated performance are all different, does that mean the result will be different, too?
That's certainly what UConn hopes, of course, as the Huskies attempt to win two games here and complete a 39-0 season, which would mark the fifth perfect season in women's Division I history and the third by UConn.
"It is a made-for-TV game," Moore said. "It's the same situation as last year. I think both of us have something to prove. I'm sure we both want to play each other."
Final Four schedule
SUNDAY, APRIL 5
• No. 3 Louisville vs. No. 1 Oklahoma
(ESPN, 7 p.m. ET)
• No. 2 Stanford vs. No. 1 Connecticut (ESPN, 9 p.m. ET)
TUESDAY, APRIL 7
• National championship
(ESPN, 8:30 p.m. ET)
All games also available on ESPN360.com.
Still, UConn really doesn't need any extra motivation in this matchup, so the revenge factor is not all that relevant in talk of preparation. The Huskies don't sound as though they harbor serious resentment against Stanford for cutting short their season in Tampa.
UConn's players who went through that experience seem to have a fair and mature opinion of what happened, and a lot of it has to do with all the things Stanford did right.
The Cardinal's inside game, for instance, was terrific. Appel and Kayla Pedersen combined for 32 points and 17 rebounds. The Huskies' inside game wasn't quite as sharp, and that was a significant factor.
But probably the biggest thing that decided last year's semifinal in the Cardinal's favor was the guard play and how that dictated the pace of the game. With Kalana Greene and Mel Thomas out with injuries, UConn did not guard Stanford on the perimeter as well as Auriemma would have hoped, and Wiggins took advantage with 25 points and 13 rebounds.
"To beat Stanford, you have to have good guards, and a lot of them," Auriemma said. "We were minus two of them. So we couldn't play the way we wanted to play. We had to play the way they wanted to play. You can't let somebody play to their strengths. And we did.
"And they made shots that they had to make when they had to make them. I thought the game was lost at about the 10-minute mark in the second half."
Auriemma can still see the sequence of events in his head so clearly. His team had been very successful rallying with a zone, but he knew that a team like Stanford would not keep hitting its head against a wall. It would figure things out with enough trips down the court.
Auriemma wanted his team out of the zone, but by the time he'd communicated it and everyone understood it, Wiggins had struck for two 3-pointers. Then Pedersen nailed a shot from behind the arc. That stretch gave Stanford back momentum and allowed the Cardinal enough of a cushion.
These weren't chippy layups that UConn gave up because of inattention (as if that ever happens). These were big 3-pointers that Stanford hit against a defense that made some subtle but costly mistakes.
Which is why when asked what she learned most from that loss, Moore said, "Just how much those little things matter."
Auriemma thinks Moore is a better defender now, and a lot of that has to do with making correct decisions quickly.
"That's something every basketball player has to constantly do," Moore said. "You have to make a decision, or one will be made for you. I think I'm at my best when I'm trusting my instincts."
Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said that despite the obvious difference in personnel, she definitely had reasons to look back on last year's Final Four meeting in preparation for this year's.
"Connecticut ran last year; they run this year," VanDerveer said. "They rebounded last year; they rebound this year. Maya Moore has more experience and confidence. With Connecticut, there are certain things you have to do to give yourself a chance. And when I watch a lot of teams face them, they don't give themselves a chance.
"Even so, you might be in the right place and doing the right thing -- and they can still make shots against you because of their pure athleticism. But that's all I'm asking my team to do: be in the right place, do the right thing."
The Huskies' undefeated record and season-long No. 1 status have, understandably, made this a story that is largely viewed in the public eye through a UConn blue lens. That it's about fixing a "mistake" made last year against this same team. That it's a quest for perfection, with Stanford playing the part of artificial speed bump on the superspeedway -- bothersome but ultimately removable.
The Cardinal don't see it that way, of course.
"They're on a mission," VanDerveer said, "and we're on a mission."
Just like last season, Stanford goes into the game as an underdog, but not one that's going to roll over.
"We can't look at it like we're taking on the whole world," Pedersen said. "They have great stars that all work together well. We know they're extremely talented and work together really well. But when you're at the Final Four, you can't go into it being scared."
Fear isn't a factor for the Huskies, either -- the fear, that is that they might somehow fall short of perfection.
Montgomery struggled in the semifinal (4-of-18 from the field) but says she doesn't carry a weight from that game. If being the big favorite all season has been a burden for her or the rest of the Huskies, it doesn't show.
"It's like coming to see the gladiators, you know?" Auriemma said. "The only way it's going to be a big story is if we were to lose somehow, some way.
"And it's a tough way to go through life. But believe me, I wouldn't want to be in any other situation."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.