NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- For 12-and-a-half minutes Sunday evening, hope rose in the hearts of those outside the Storrs, Conn. orbit of influence. For 12-and-a-half minutes, it looked like someone might actually give the Huskies a game.
I'm not talking solely about Stanford fans, though back at The Farm, folks had to be ecstatic to see the Cardinal up by six, leading 22-16 -- on a Mikaela Ruef jumper with the dish by Amber Orrange -- with just 5:39 to go in the first half of Sunday's second national semifinal game of the 2014 NCAA Division I Women's Basketball Tournament at the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville. I'm not talking about Tennessee loyalists who don't want to see legendary coach Pat Summitt's record of eight national titles go down in flames this (or any other) year.
I'm not even talking about the "anyone-but-Connecticut" Husky-haters, of whom there are many, whose burning desire to see Connecticut beaten is fueled by envy or by resentment at having seen their own teams at the south end of a 20-to-40-point beatdown at the hands of UConn a time or two too many.
I'm talking about those of us who don't have a dog in this particular race but who care deeply about this sport and its future. Those of us who have nothing but admiration and respect for Geno Auriemma and all that he, his staff and his teams of superbly talented athletes have built in Storrs over the past 20 years. Those who similarly respect the legacy of excellence that has been built at Stanford, but who otherwise have no particular loyalties to the Cardinal. But those who also know that without some element of uncertainty and suspense, some degree of meaningful competition, few will long remain interested in the outcome of a national championship tournament that seems to operate annually according to script. UConn goes 40-0. Yawn. Connecticut storms its way to its ninth national title. Click - the channel changes.
That kind of audience detachment isn't fair to Connecticut. It isn't fair to Connecticut's opponents. And it isn't fair to the game. But it's the inevitable result of a dominance so overwhelming that a game is no longer a contest, but a 40-minute forced march to a perfectly predictable result.
Perhaps, therefore, it was wishful thinking that led some of the media (this publication in that number) to observe that perhaps, under exactly the right constellation of circumstances -- i.e., National Player of the Year Breanna Stewart and/or the Huskies as a group, having an "off" shooting night; Stanford's Chiney Ogwumike, one of the most talented posts in the game, getting a level of support from her teammates that she had seen little of for the majority of the season; the Cardinal coming up with just enough 3-pointers to keep UConn from packing the paint -- then Stanford might have at least a fighting chance against Connecticut, who has been, since before the season even began, the overwhelming favorite to repeat as national champs.
Alas, it was not to be. Seventeen seconds after dishing to Ruef for the aforesaid jumper, Orrange fouled Connecticut's Kiah Stokes, who made both to ignite a 12-2 run that closed out the first half with UConn up, 28-4.
Some of us, even then, might have clung to a glimmer of optimism that this could be, if not an upset, then at least a competitive game.
A four-point deficit is really nothing in this game of runs. And the 12 minutes and 10 seconds for which Stanford had led in the first half was the longest the Huskies have trailed in any game all season. (UConn has trailed for only 64:34 of the 1,560 minutes it has played this season.)
Indeed, if you searched the first-half box score, you could find other reasons for cheer: Stanford had out-shot UConn, 39.3 percent to 38.5. It was only the sixth time all season that Connecticut had been out-shot in a half. And Connecticut's shooting, if not "poor," then at least had not been as robust as usual; this was just the eighth time all year that the Huskies had been held below 40-percent shooting in a half.
Stewart might be having that "off" night, after all. Though she, along among UConn's players, had amassed 10 points by halftime, six of them had come in her four visits to the charity stripe. From the field, she was just two of six. Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, who had been a big part of the Huskies' success in the Lincoln Regional, was faring even worse, scoreless on 0-4 shooting in the opening 20 minutes.
And Ogwumike was, it seemed, getting some help from her teammates, most notably in the form of 10 points, including two treys, by 5-7 freshman Lili Thompson, who by the half had already exceeded her average output of 8.3 points per game.
|Stanford's Chiney Ogwumike (black jersey) battles Connecticut's Stefanie Dolson (white jersey) for position in Sunday's Final Four match-up. UConn succeeded in limiting the PAC-12's all-time leading scorer to a season-low 15 points, though Ogwumike added 10 rebounds for her 66th career double-double. (Photo by Teri Priebe/FullCourt.com)|
The sobering footnote, however, was that Ogwumike herself was not doing at all well, and with Ogwumike typically as consistent as clockwork, her own contribution to Stanford's fortunes had been taken somewhat as a given. The PAC-12's all-time leading scorer and rebounder, who is expected to go first in next week's WNBA Draft, as her sister did two years previously, averages 26.1 points and 12.1 rebounds per game. By halftime she had pulled down four boards and put up an equal number of points.
All lingering hope was quickly extinguished as play resumed with Connecticut extending the 12-2 spurt with which it had closed the first half into a 28-5 run carried over into the first six minutes of the second stanza. UConn, who had beaten Stanford by 19 points when the two teams met during the opening weekend of the season in November, was now up by 17 (44-27) with six minutes still to play.
And no evidence of a Stanford rally in sight. Indeed, though the Cardinal would several times threaten to cut the UConn lead to single digits, they would never get closer than 11 the rest of the way.
Thompson, who had done so well for the Cardinal in the game's first seven minutes, hadn't scored since. She would net just one more field goal the rest of the way to finish with 12 points.
Orrange, who'd had just four points, plus four assists in the first half, took over the role of Stanford's secondary scoring option, adding 12 points in the second half, including two of Stanford's four second-half 3-pointers, but just one more assist. Little help was coming from anywhere else for the Cardinal. Bonnie Samuelson, Stanford's 3-point specialist, netted one trey in seven attempts. Taylor Greenfield came up empty. Mikaela Ruef, whose contributions against North Carolina led to her selection as Most Outstanding Player in the Stanford Regional, had just two points in the second half to finish with six for the night.
Ogwumike, still struggling to accomplish anything in the low-post, her usual stomping grounds, was now resorting to heaving up 3-pointers. She had taken only 12 of them all season, netting just three. On this night, her first long-ball found its mark, encouraging her to chuck up two more. Both missed.
Ogwumike would finish the night with the 66th double-double (a season-low 15 points, plus 10 rebounds) of a distinguished collegiate career. But was this really the time to be experimenting with adding a long-range game to her repertoire, we asked Ogwumike afterward. She explained that she'd been working on adding a long game to her skillset all season. Besides that, the Huskies had gone big, bringing in Kiah Stokes to play alongside Stewart and Stefanie Dolson rather than in relief of one of them, and allowing Connecticut to move Stewart to the 3-position where her height created a huge mismatch for Stanford's smaller wings.
"I think that changed our vision offensively," said Ogwumike. "Harder to get passes inside and get your shot up if you're being guarded by the 3 in Stewart. I think that affected the game."
Beyond that, with the paint so heavily packed by UConn defenders, Ogwumike was growing frustrated at not being able to get anything much accomplished inside. So, she figured, why not give something else a try and started shooting from beyond the arc, said Ogwumike, excited at least one of them had gone in.
"I was just like, 'There are three people in the paint.' I think I had maybe only three or four shots in the first half, and I was like, 'The only way I'm going to get the ball is if I shoot the ball outside, because they're not ready to defend that.' Glad to make one tonight - didn't go home completely empty-handed."
But head coach Tara VanDerveer said that 3-point shooting by her post star had not been part of the game plan. "I thought Chiney, in deep, it was pretty physical for her. ... She missed some stuff in there that she usually makes. It was physical, and they were big -- both," said VanDerveer.
I wanted her to come out a little and face up [to her defender] so that they'd have to take their hands off of her," VanDerveer explained. Somehow, that got lost in translation. "I encouraged her to move out and face up [to her defenders], so that they had to take their hands off of her."
Just how far out, seems to have gotten lost in transmission. But, VanDerveer observed, "In some ways it takes one thing to get here, but then to beat Connecticut when you're here, we needed something else." Specifically, "We needed Chiney to be on the block to get here, but we needed her to be off the block to move on. Her just being in there, we needed her to get here and that's how we got here. But once we got here, we needed her to kind of face up more and move off the block and open things up and we weren't able to do that very well today."
Meanwhile, everything was coming up roses for the Huskies. Mosqueda-Lewis, who hadn't scored at all in the first half, was now feeling it, with seven already, including the 3-pointer that had capped the Huskies' 11-and-a-half minute run. She, too would finish with 15 points, plus five rebounds and two assists.
Bria Hartly was good for 13 points, including two triples, plus five boards and five assists. Moriah Jefferson and Dolson added 10 each, and Stokes contributed nine.
Stewart had improved her field-goal shooting to 40 percent by game's end, although nine of her game-high 18 points would come from the charity stripe.
Above all else, throughout the second-half the Huskies made it all look so easy, with crisp ball movement always seeming to find the open player whenever a bucket was needed to ensure their double-digit lead. Meanwhile, it seemed like Stanford had to work hard, really hard, for what little it got throughout the second half.
Asked about that perception, VanDerveer replied that it hadn't really been easy for Connecticut either. Hartley, Mosqueda-Lewis, Stewart had all gone through their periods of difficulty and droughts over the course of the game. "It's just that with five players out there who are all so good, three All-Americans, whenever one is struggling there's always someone out there who can take over," she said. "You look at like the Big Three with the Heat. I mean, when you're a really good player, it gets easier when you're playing with two or three other really good players. ... So like even if like, Kaleena's an All-American and what did she score in the first half? Zero? Chiney can't do that for us. Even Stewart was struggling. Chiney can't do that for us. Bria Hartley? But when you have so many, I mean, they're stacked. And they play very well together. And they have a very good game plan. It's tough."
There are some things you simply cannot do against a team like UConn, said VanDerveer, and she conceded her team had done a good bit of all of them.
"We had to play a lot better to beat them. We had to execute offensively. You can't turn the ball over," said VanDerveer. "We turned the ball over too much in the second half," she observed.
In fact, Stanford gave up more turnovers (7) in the first half than in the second (6), and in many games, a coach might be happy to have had just 13 turnovers. But the bottom line is that Connecticut garnered 20 points off those 13 Stanford miscues, 10 of which came off UConn steals. Meanwhile, Stanford picked up only 11 points from Connecticut's eight turnovers.
"You can't give up early o-boards, like we did," VanDerveer added.
Stanford more or less held its own on the backboards, out-rebounding UConn 18-17 in the opening period, and falling short by just two, 35-33 for the game as a whole, with the Huskies and the Cardinal each netting 10 offensive boards. But UConn's first two buckets of the night were both stick-backs, which unquestionably helped Connecticut establish an early momentum, and for the game as a whole, the Huskies were far more effective in capitalizing on their offensive rebounding, with 12 second-chance points to the Cardinal's six despite the parity on the offensive boards.
"We can't send them to the free-throw line, like that, ... when they're such good free-throw shooters," said VanDerveer. On the night, the Huskies made 24 visits to the line, where they reaped 17 points on 70.8-percent free-throw shooting; the Cardinal got to the foul line just 10 times, netting eight.
VanDerveer also found fault with her team's pace: "Their pace was really good," she said of Connecticut. "I thought our pace was too slow. We're not moving, we're not moving the ball. We weren't screening and we weren't able to run our office the way we needed to."
That lack of intensity became most apparent in the game's last five minutes, when Stanford twice cut the lead to 11, the first time as a result of a 7-1 Cardinal mini-run capped by Samuelson's lone 3-pointer of the game. Time and again, Stanford would deliberately bring the ball down, then rather aimlessly dribble it around the perimeter, burning up much of the shot clock. As Connecticut systematically extended its lead back to 17 with 1:19 to go, there seemed to be no uptick in tempo or intensity on the Stanford end of the floor.
Did they realize the clock was not their friend? One would never expect a Stanford team to panic, but some sense of urgency certainly seemed called for. It was not to be found. Just dribble, dribble, dribble, as the clock ticked down on any chance of a comeback.
Still, at the end of the day, Stanford lost because they were simply out-gunned.
In the past five years, only two teams in the country have managed to beat Connecticut: Stanford and Notre Dame. Indeed, in 2010, it was the Stanford Cardinal who capped the Huskies historic winning streak at 90 "W"s.
But on the whole, the Huskies have had the better of the Cardinal far more often than not. Stanford is 6-10 against UConn, all-time, and has dropped seven of its last eight meetings with the Huskies, including the two losses this season. On Sunday night, UConn ended Stanford's season for the third time in six years -- all at the Final Four, In the national semifinal in 2009, in the national championship game in 2010, and again in Sunday's national semifinal. In the past seven years, the two teams have have met four times in the Final Four, with Connecticut the victor in three of those games.
"What would it take for Stanford to be able to beat Connecticut?" we asked VanDerveer in the locker room Sunday. If she could have everything on her wish list, what would it be?
She paused to reflect on the question.
"In women's basketball, there's kind of a pyramid like this where it's steep," she said, steepling her hands at a sharp angle to illustrate her point. "Whereas in men's basketball, it's like this," she continued, lowering the angle between her two hands to a gentle arc. "Like in women's basketball, a seven and an eight would never play for a national championship; there's not enough quality players.
"When you have three All-Americans on one team, you know?" she asked rhetorically. "And that has happened with Tennessee in the past -- I think they've had three All-Americans before -- but women's basketball, in order for it to have more parity, even at the top, we have to have more quality players and they have to spread out more.
"Now for us at Stanford, it's just going to get harder and harder because of admissions. You know, there's like 42,000 kids who apply, and so it's always going to be very challenging to find the student that can compete at this level. That's why someone like Chiney is so special." Stanford's players must compete for admission independently of their athletic status, and there's little, if any, "thumb on the scales," that would give a prospective basketball player an advantage over any of the rest of the 42,000 applicants in the pool.
There was not a hint of bitterness or jealousy evident in VanDerveer's tone as she tacitly admitted the chances of her team's return to a national championship were remote, to say the least. and growing more so every year. She spelled out facts of the the situation and their ramifications with the same emotionless affect one might use to describe the size of the court or the height of the hoop.
"We're exceedingly proud of our team to be here," she added. "And would we like to win? Yeah. But if we played Connecticut nine times out of 10, how many times could we beat them? Like if it was an NBA final? A seven-game series? Or a 10-game? Or like America's cup, what 17 games?"
But Sunday night, it was one-and-done. Stanford headed home 33-4 for the season, including its pair of losses to UConn, a record it can justifiably take pride in. UConn, now 39-0, head on to face Notre Dame in Tuesday night's national championship game.