TAMPA, Fla. - Candice Wiggins refused to let Stanford lose to Connecticut. Not again.
The Cardinal star continued her electrifying run through the NCAA tournament, scoring 25 points and grabbing 13 rebounds while getting some timely help from Kayla Pedersen and JJ Hones as Stanford shocked Connecticut 82-73 in Sunday night’s national semifinals.
On her biggest stage yet, it took a while for Wiggins to warm up in her team’s 82-73 victory over Connecticut on Sunday. The win sent Stanford into Tuesday night’s championship game against Tennessee.
Wiggins typically leads the Cardinal through emotional, loud pregame huddles. Her message this time focused on her teammates’ smarts and how far they had come since the first meeting between the teams.
“We failed the midterm, but we’re going to take this final,” guard Rosalyn Gold-Onwude recalled Wiggins saying.
Wiggins was a little more specific.
“We got killed by Connecticut back in November, just absolutely killed. And, you know, they changed the whole dynamic of our team,” Wiggins said.
“So we grouped before the game and we said: ‘Let’s see how much better we’ve gotten. This is a test for ourselves to see we’re not the same team we were in November.”
The first player to have two 40-point performances in the same NCAA tournament, Wiggins seemed to be everywhere on the floor and finished five assists shy of the first triple-double in women’s Final Four history.
She didn’t shoot particularly well, going 7-for-19, but made two huge 3-pointers to help Stanford pull away for good after UConn trimmed a seven-point halftime deficit to 47-46 and appeared to be taking control.
“They’re a lot better team than they were back in November. They played the game today the way we usually play it,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “We got done in by our own stuff.”
When Wiggins wasn’t making big shots, Hones and Pedersen stepped up to break UConn’s heart.
Hones hit a deep 3-pointer to put Stanford up 10 with 3:20 to go, then Pedersen answered a 3-pointer that drew UConn within 71-66 with a long jumper of her own to send Cardinal fans into celebration mode.
“We ran with them and we ran on them. That’s their game,” Gold-Onwude said. “This is amazing. You saw after we got to the Final Four, everybody was crying. This time, we’re happy, but we’re also very focused.”
Pedersen finished with 17 points, and Jayne Appel added 15. Maya Moore led UConn with 20 points on 8-for-19 shooting.
UConn dominated the earlier meeting in the U.S. Virgin Islands, but both teams made significant changes during the last four months of the season.
Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer tinkered with her team’s triangle offense following the 12-point loss, which showed the Cardinal exactly what type of team it needed to become if it hoped to be able to keep pace in a rematch.
UConn made adjustments after losing starting guards Mel Thomas and Kalana Greene to season-ending knee injuries that forced the Huskies to rely more heavily on Moore, Montgomery, Tina Charles and Ketia Swanier.
Auriemma said those players were missed Sunday night.
“This is the one team we can’t match up with without the two guys that were hurt,” the UConn coach said.
The changes VanDerveer made — basically modifying her offense to revolve around two post players rather than one — increased the production of Wiggins’ supporting cast. That also made the Cardinal less dependent on the senior star who carried the team on her shoulders during the tournament.
“We needed them to miss some shots, and they didn’t,” Auriemma said. “Every shot they missed in the Virgin Islands, they made today. Every one.”
UConn trailed 40-33 at the half, however that wasn’t necessarily a bad omen because the Huskies were 4-0 when trailing at the break entering the Final Four. They looked as though they might have another comeback in them when Renee Montgomery hit a 15-foot jumper and Charde Houston followed with a layup to trim Stanford’s lead to one.
The 5-foot-11 guard grabbed all 13 of her rebounds on the defensive end and went 8-for-9 from the foul line, including four in the final 1:21 to help put it away.
UConn, in the Final Four for the first time since winning its fifth national title in 2004, struggled to get the ball to Moore early. The freshman All-American was held to six points in the first half and struggled from beyond the 3-point line trying to get the Huskies back in it.
Moore was 3-of-11 from behind the arc, and Montgomery was 1-for-9 on the way to scoring 15 points. Swanier had 13 points, and Houston added 10 for UConn.
“At this time of the year, especially in this environment, unless you win, there’s really not a lot that you can say that’s going to make any of the players feel any better,” Auriemma said.
“The one thing I will say is it’s unfortunate that the season comes down to one weekend and it doesn’t go our way. The other five months seem to have no meaning. That’s why this is such a difficult game to lose. ... All you remember now is what happened in those 40 minutes. You don’t remember all the things that led to getting here.”
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