The basketball rivalry between UConn and Stanford has been a bit rough through the past two and a half decades. On Sunday night they will meet again. Top-ranked and unbeaten UConn (38-0) will face No. 6 Stanford (33-3) in the national semifinals at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville (9 p.m., ESPN). This is the fifth time that these two programs will face each other at the Final Four.
This is the second time this season that both teams have played against each other. Back on Nov. 11, UConn defeated Stanford 74-57 at Gampel Pavilion. The winner will face the winner of the first semifinal game between No. 2 Notre Dame (36-0) and No. 11 Maryland (28-6) for the National Championship on Tuesday night.
The rivalry began in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when national power Stanford played an up-and-coming UConn team. The Cardinal dominated the Huskies in the series and the two schools just went their separate ways because Stanford refused to play a return game in Storrs. When asked about UConn's signature recruit Nykesha Sales coming to Storrs, Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer responded that she just signed six Nykesha Saleses.
During the 1995 national semifinal in Minneapolis, the Huskies made a huge statement by blowing out the Cardinal to reach their first championship game. In the postgame press conference, VanDerveer predicted that Tennessee would beat UConn in the title game. A year later, VanDerveer was the head coach of the USA Olympic women's basketball team and some UConn fans were upset with how VanDerveer treated Rebecca Lobo during the Olympics. Many Husky fans referred to the Stanford coach as the "wicked witch of the west."
They played one more time in 1997 in a neutral site game in Florida. Sales had a program-record 46 points in that game. But the cold war continued. Neither team played again until the 2005 Sweet 16 when Stanford ended UConn's 20-game NCAA Tournament winning streak.
The teams met in a preseason tournament in St. Thomas, USVI in 2007 and then again at the end of that season at the Final Four in 2008. Tensions began to ease.
Both programs knew that they needed each other. UConn just lost the Tennessee series and Stanford was stuck on the west coast and suffered from east coast bias. This started a new national non-conference rivalry with both teams playing against each other on national television. UConn and Stanford have been playing each other since the 2009-10 season. According to the Hartford Courant, they will continue to play against each other until the 2017 season, and possibly extend it until the 2019 season. Next season, the two teams will play in Stanford on Nov. 14 to start the college basketball season.
Since 2007, this has been a tremendous rivalry. Stanford beat UConn in the 2008 Final Four and ended the Huskies' NCAA record 90-game winning streak in 2010. UConn has beaten the Cardinal for the 2010 national title and last year when Stanford was the top-ranked team in the country. The Huskies lead the overall series 9-6, and have won seven of the last nine meetings. This series is getting close to what UConn and Tennessee used to be for women's basketball.
Stanford is a quality basketball team. This is its sixth trip to the Final Four in the last seven seasons. UConn will be making its seventh consecutive trip.
The Cardinal is led by senior All-American Chiney Ogwumike. She averages a double-double with 26.4 points and 12.1 rebounds per game. The forward is the only Stanford player to average double figures in either category for the season.
Stanford's road to the Final Four was full of home cooking. The Cardinal were the No. 2 seed in the Stanford Regional and defeated No. 4 seed North Carolina last Tuesday night in the regional final on their home court. They defeated the Tar Heels 74-65 but trailed at halftime 36-30. They also defeated South Dakota, Florida State, and Penn State in earlier rounds of the tournament.
A lot of things have changed about these two teams during the past six months. Neither team is the same. Two of Stanford's starters during the UConn game have not played in this NCAA Tournament. Ogwumike's scoring average is down six points, but four other players are scoring double figures.
UConn was at full strength back in November. Morgan Tuck came off the bench and scored 11 points. Tuck has missed most of the season with a knee injury. Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis missed most of the second half against the Cardinal. She fell from her right elbow trying to grab a rebound and suffered a nerve contusion in her right elbow.
Both teams struggled shooting the ball in the first matchup. UConn only had two players score in double figures and shot 39.4 percent while holding Stanford to 35 percent shooting. Kia Stokes has her best game of the season scoring 10 points and grabbing 13 rebounds. Bria Hartley scored a team high 20 points and eight rebounds and six assists. The Cardinal was lead by Amber Orrange with 22 points and Ogwumike had 16 points and 13 rebounds.
Moriah Jefferson was left open many times during the first matchup. She was one for seven shooting. Jefferson knows that Stanford may leave her open again, and she will need to knock down shots in order for UConn to be successful.
Another match-up will be Stanford's size versus UConn's quickness. Besides the 6-foot-4 Ogwumike, Mikaela Raef - Most Outstanding Player of the Stanford Regional with 17 points and nine rebounds - stands at 6-foot-3. Coming off the bench for Stanford is 6-foot-3 freshman Bonnie Samuelson who is averaging almost 28 minutes a game in the tournament. Samuelson scored 13 points in the Elite Eight victory.
Stefanie Dolson, Breanna Stewart, and Stokes need to stay out of foul trouble and play solid defense in the post. Stewart and Dolson will need to hit shots from the perimeter to open up the lane as well for Hartley, Jefferson, and Mosqueda-Lewis.
Finally, the Huskies will need to find their shooting stroke. They struggled shooting the ball last weekend in Lincoln, Neb. BYU and Texas A&M were able to play with the Huskies and keep the score close in throughout the first 25 minutes of both games, but defensively, UConn just shut down both the Cougars and Aggies in double digits victories. Mosqueda-Lewis scored 17 points in the regional final and was named the Lincoln Regional MOP.
UConn is 8-6 all-time in the national semifinals.