- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
- 0 Shares
SAN ANTONIO -- They've met four times previously in the NCAA tournament, but never before the championship game. But now, five months after both teams started the season firmly ranked in the 1-2 spots, Connecticut and Stanford face off pretty much just as everyone was expecting them to do.
Not that the paths were bump-free. Well, UConn's was -- largely -- with the exception of a few mildly anxious moments in the second half of Sunday's semifinal with Baylor, when the Huskies had "only" a single-digit lead.
The vaunted UConn defense came through, though, and Huskies fans didn't have to sweat too late into their team's 70-50 victory. It was still a good glimpse of a Baylor team that could well be knocking on the national-championship door next season as it brings back all but Morghan Medlock. Watching Baylor and Brittney Griner was a tantalizing glimpse at the future.
But UConn and Stanford are front and center in the present, women's basketball royalty fulfilling 2010 predictions. The Cardinal, though, have given their faithful more to worry about in the past two victories.
Stanford's 73-66 win over Oklahoma on Sunday seemed in the bag for the Cardinal when it led by 17 with just more than six minutes left. But Oklahoma made a last charge, getting as close as three points twice in the last 46 seconds. And while it wasn't the Pepto-Bismol finish the Cardinal's Elite Eight win over Xavier was, it was still tighter than Stanford would have preferred.
"I mean, no one really wants close games," said Stanford's Nneka Ogwumike, whose career-best 38 points led the Cardinal. "I think our team does an excellent job of staying composed and poised."
UConn coach Geno Auriemma discounted the idea that Stanford having two consecutive close games would be any factor in the final matchup.
"Sometimes when you get a second life as a team, you tend to make the most of it if you're a really good team," Auriemma said of Stanford having survived Xavier to get to the Final Four. "And I think they're a really good team.
"I don't think it hurts them or helps them Tuesday night, what's happened. And I don't think it hurts or helps us, what's happened, you know?"
Does the past have any impact at all on the championship game? Stanford and Connecticut's first meeting in the NCAA tournament, in the 1995 semifinals, was a blowout win for the Huskies. A decade later, Stanford won a Sweet 16 matchup. The Cardinal won in the 2008 national semifinals, but UConn won in the Final Four semis last year.
That 2008 Cardinal win is the most recent loss by the Huskies' program. And Stanford is the squad that has come the closest to UConn this season.
The first half of the Stanford-UConn matchup Dec. 23 had a Final Four feel to it before the Huskies -- trailing two points early after the break -- took control in the second half and won 80-68.
"We need to come out hard," Ogwumike said. "We're not going to let them try to do what they like to do. I think we did a pretty good job defensively [in the first game], but we had a few offensive mistakes that they fed off in the second half -- because they won the second half. We can't allow that to happen. We need to be on top of our game every possession."
It's important to note that game was played in Hartford, Conn., and came at the end of a nine-day stretch for the Cardinal that also featured games with Duke and Tennessee.
"I remember a great game in the first half; I think we took what they gave us," Stanford's Jeanette Pohlen said of the Huskies in December. "We played really good defense; we boarded. Second half, I feel like we let it slide a little bit."
And even a little slide against UConn is lethal. Especially with the Huskies, on a 77-game winning streak, so close to another title.
"This is what we came here to do," Auriemma said. "The fact that we're playing a really, really good team makes it even better."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.