NASHVILLE, Tenn. — All the talk of Stanford feeling like a junior varsity team crashing the Final Four or being an extra at the beauty pageant is just rhetoric to Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma. Motivational chatter he says no team in the national semifinals needs since each has won a championship.
Auriemma noted Saturday he’s never won any pageant.
Nope, he and his Huskies just win titles – and they’re back chasing perfection again. They are two wins from making history: The first program in the women’s game with nine national titles.
“I think this team thinks they can win anywhere, anytime against anybody,” Auriemma said.
Before UConn (38-0) can think of a possible undefeated showdown with Notre Dame in the title game, however, the Huskies must get past Stanford tonight.
Stanford is back at the Final Four for the sixth time in seven years. Stanford has two titles to its credit, though the Cardinal have been shut out in eight previous Final Four berths over the past 20 years. Compare that to UConn, which has won all its titles on 13 trips in that same span.
Auriemma said every team in the Final Four is capable of winning the title
“All you got to do is play really well two nights, and you can win a national championship,” Auriemma said. “And all four teams that are here are capable of doing that because they’ve already done that. So I don’t think they should feel like they’re a JV team. I don’t think they should anybody should feel like they’re the extras at the Miss America pageant.”
Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer credits the media wanting the story of two undefeated teams playing for a title, and she makes no apologies for wanting to mess that up.
“If we’re going to be someone’s hors d’oeuvre, we’re not going to get swallowed easily,” VanDerveer said.
“We’re going to work really hard to play the best game we can, and we definitely talk about it.”
The Huskies have won six of the past seven against Stanford, including the last tournament meeting in the 2010 title game. They also won Nov. 11 in Storrs by 19.
The defending national champion has won 44 straight overall, and UConn sophomore Breanna Stewart was named The Associated Press’ player of the year Saturday. Stewart is scoring a team-high 19.4 points a game and much more confident in her second Final Four.
“I’ve been here before, but I still want to accomplish the same task,” Stewart said.
All five starters score in double figures, and the Huskies play defense just as well. They hold opponents to 47.3 points a game and 30.7 percent shooting. Junior Kiah Stokes said Auriemma boosts their confidence by putting them in can’t win situations like playing five on nine. Then there’s that crucial experience as a program with this their seventh straight Final Four.
“It’s even harder now because people don’t want us to win again,” Stokes said. “It’s exciting for us, and we’re looking forward to it. It takes a lot of work. We know it will take even more work than last year.”
Stanford last upset UConn in the NCAA tournament in the 2008 national semifinal, a game VanDerveer has mentioned to her players noting those Huskies had the likes of Tina Charles and Maya Moore.
“They have a very talented team this year, but we just have to play well,” VanDerveer said.
Stanford (33-3) has won four straight since a loss in the Pac-12 tournament.
All-American Chiney Ogwumike has much more help during the NCAA tournament than in that early loss at UConn. Point guard Amber Orrange, freshman guard Lili Thompson and Mikaela Ruef have kept opposing defenses from collapsing around the senior forward.
“We’re not intimidated,” Ogwumike said. “We’re excited. We just want to play our game. I think no matter the outcome, if we play Stanford basketball, we’ll be happy. But, granted, we’ll be happier if we win, obviously, and that’s what we’re working toward.”
Those aren’t just more words. The Cardinal finished practice with a bit of dancing to make sure they stay loose and have fun.
Said Ruef, “That’s what we’re trying to do on this trip.”