March 28, 2005

Stanford returns from depths

Kansas City -- In the quiet arena, you could hear the thwack in the cheap seats. The sound of hand smacking leather.

It was the sound of Stanford's No. 1 national rating being devalued, downgraded and disrespected.

It was Stanford forward T'Nae Thiel's jump shot being rudely fly-swatted by Connecticut forward Charde Houston, who retrieved her own block and flew to the other end for a layup.

A minute later, Stanford was reeling toward the locker room, down 33-27 at the half. They were shooting terribly, getting clogged badly by the UConn press, getting beat on the boards. Stanford freshman superstar Candice Wiggins lit up the halftime stat sheet with five turnovers.

"I told Candice (after the game) it was a good thing I didn't have my reading glasses on at halftime," Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said.

It was a low. Not just for Stanford's season, but in VanDerveer's two decades as Stanford coach. Sure, UConn won the last three national championships, but it had done it with departed superstar Diana Taurasi.

It was looking like a triumphant moment for UConn's Geno Auriemma, the women's collegiate coach of the past decade.

It was a low for the team magic that VanDerveer had been talking about all season, a dream group of ballplayers who had the talent, tenacity and togetherness in a package as well-wrapped as any VanDerveer has coached, that had powered to a 22-game win streak.

It was a low for the Pac-10 and West Coast basketball.

Then, for those of us wondering what that No. 1 national ranking signified, the Cardinal showed us in the second half. Forty-nine points, and a 76-59 win over a team that had given up more than 70 points only twice all season.

Wiggins, the magical freshman, bounced back with 15 second-half points, but it wasn't a one-person comeback. Center Brooke Smith got busy inside, Susan King Borchardt hit two 3-point bombs that gave Stanford leads, and it all clicked.

"I think we decided (at halftime) we weren't ready to be done," said Borchardt, who spent most of the night guarding UConn star Ann Strother, who is seven inches taller than Borchardt and wound up with four points.

"A lot of what (Borchardt) does for us is on the top half of the stat sheet (the opponents' totals)," VanDerveer said.

It was a huge win for Stanford, even though the Cardinal downplayed the aura of the three-time defending champs. Someone even posted a sign in the Stanford locker room -- "Mystique? What number is she?"

But talk is cheap. Stanford had a hole to dig itself out of. The Cardinal did it by going to the trenches, pounding the ball into Smith, who fired up hooks, dished to teammates and generally loosened up the UConn defense, which has carried the Huskies all season (they were ranked second in the nation in points allowed, 50.6 per game).

Halftime adjustments? Attitude. And that post thing.

"I really thought our team did the things we asked in the first half, except we have to go inside to make our triangle offense work," VanDerveer said. "We got it into Brooke the first time and I was mad she missed, but (associate coach) Amy (Tucker) said, 'She took it in strong.' "

In the end, on the scoreboard, it looked like another routine Stanford win, a rout over a good team but an underdog that simply isn't as good as Stanford.

It didn't feel that way at halftime, though. If UConn's lineup lacks mystique with Taurasi gone, there's always Auriemma, the little guy with the huge personality and reputation. On the surface, a mismatch.

On one bench, or in front of it, you have the swaggering, yelling, yapping, little genius who made UConn a dynasty by imprinting the teams with his attitude.

On the other, there's VanDerveer, who seldom leaves her seat and looks like a professor studying the game as research to write a paper. If you didn't know her record and her reputation, you'd worry that she was being overwhelmed by little Geno's big persona.

Could it be that the UConn coach had somehow summoned up his greatest coaching job, willing his overmatched team to a victory over No. 1 Stanford and his archrival VanDerveer?

He said before the game that he was worried about how his team would respond if Stanford's offense got untracked, and you weren't sure if he was working the angles, or showing genuine concern.

"How will we handle it if they score quickly and often?" he asked. "I don't know. I don't know."

He found out. They would handle it the way the last 22 teams have handled it. As gracious, well-defeated losers.

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