Upon landing in Music City, the Stanford women’s basketball team barely had enough time to put down their bags at the hotel before dinner and a film session. Stanford is known to be a scouting team that does thorough homework on its opponents - and doubly so against nemesis UConn.
Head coach Tara VanDerveer is thorough and disciplined with her analyses of defenses, and it was her scouting against Florida State that prompted her to make the crucial defensive switch to zone that allowed the Card to overcome an early eight-point deficit. Defensive strategy was also key for the Cardinal in shutting down North Carolina, limiting them to just 11-29 in shooting in the second half, securing their lead - and their spot in the Final Four - in the final minutes.
Chiney Ogwumike emphasized throughout the season that the team’s goal was to put themselves in the greatest possible position to succeed in the NCAA Tournament - more specifically, on the opposite side of the bracket of UConn. Unfortunately, that didn’t quite pan out after Stanford lost in the semis of the Pac-12 Tournament. So now Stanford is set to face UConn in the Final Four and all of that legendary VanDerveer scouting has been focused on tackling the Huskies. And that only means shutting down their offense and coping with perhaps the best defense in the nation.
The wheels had barely taken off from the tarmac of San Jose International Airport on Thursday when VanDerveer and assistant coaches had their iPads out, their heads buried in film before even arriving in Nashville. Soon, Ogwumike made her way to the front of the plane and spent most of the duration of the flight going over film and scouting the Huskies with associate coach Amy Tucker.
The national title has eluded VanDerveer and the Cardinal since winning it all in 1992, and with Stanford’s sixth appearance in the Final Four in seven years, it seems inevitable that something will give and Stanford will win a title once again. But in order for them to do that, they have to stop Geno Auriemma—in his 28th year at the helm of the Huskies—and Breanna Stewart, who poses the biggest matchup issue for the Cardinal.
The Huskies are attempting to top off a perfect season with a perfect record and a repeat championship, led by a trio of All-Americans. Sophomore national player of the year contender Breanna Stewart, a 6-4 forward, leads the team in scoring with 19.4 PPG and 8.1 RPG. Seniors Stephanie Dolson (12.4 ppg, 9.4 rpg), Bria Hartley (16.3 ppg, 3.6 rpg) and junior Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis (13.1 ppg, 5.4 rpg) bring leadership, experience and acute contributions to the post and perimeter, respectively. Stanford will not only be playing against potentially one of the greatest lineups in Huskies history, but will also have to contend with the hype and confidence surrounding them.
The Huskies have an imposing presence on the low block, with similar size to what Stanford had to contend with against Penn State. All of the scouting and film watching will come in handy when deciding how to contain UConn’s post presence and 50 percent shooting from the perimeter and silence the naysayers who claim that an undefeated Notre Dame-UConn matchup was inevitable from the start of the season. The Cardinal fell to the Huskies in the second game of the regular season 76- 57, however with the whole roster healthy and with the precedent of five players scoring in double digits in the last game, anything is possible for this Cardinal team when they play with "heart" - something Ogwumike always emphasizes.
The biggest difference between this Stanford team in April and the team that played against UConn in November is the lineup. VanDerveer was finally able to settle on a rotation in the latter part of Pac-12 play and everyone is set in their roles. Freshman Lili Thompson was hardly a force in that first game, but Sunday she will play a huge role on both sides of the floor. Not only did she shut down Penn State’s and UNC’s leading scorers, but she also steadily knocked down shots on the perimeter to take defensive pressure off of Ogwumike down low.
UConn manages very few fouls despite being an aggressive defensive team, committing 200 less fouls over the course of the season than their opponents and more than 100 less than Stanford. UConn can get away with a lot on the defensive end because of their size and length, evidenced by the number of blocked shots they’ve accumulated—313 to Stanford’s 129. However, if Stanford can match that aggression in attacking the basket and get players in foul trouble, they could take away a key link to UConn’s game plan. The backcourt duo of Thompson and point guard Amber Orrange will be key in orchestrating the Cardinal efforts against an imposing Husky defense.
As displayed against UNC, however, Orrange knows when she needs to come through with big plays, even if she doesn’t assert herself every game. Ogwumike and Stewart will most likely be set the task of battling it out underneath the basket. With her great wingspan, size and mobility, Stewart offers great rim protection and has been near impossible to guard this season, while making it hard for other posts to generate points underneath the basket as well.
On the other side, it's simple for Chiney Ogwumike: she will have to play her greatest game and not get frustrated early on. Ogwumike has a great ability, though, to read the defense and play to her strengths and according to what the defense gives her, whether it’s attacking the basket or stepping back to shoot.
The size of Stanford’s guards, with Bonnie Samuelson and Taylor Greenfield coming off the bench should be able to cope with Mosqueda-Lewis on the perimeter. Mosqueda-Lewis and Samuelson both lead their teams in shooting behind the arc at 42 percent. Stanford will have to be disciplined with what shots it wants to take and it will have to be patient - quick or forced shots will play right into UConn's hands.
In addition to needing a stellar performance from Ogwumike, the Card should hope for a poor shooting performance from UConn - which for UConn means something just a little shy of lights out or perfect. In the last couple games of tournament play, however, the Huskies have not been shooting up to their standards, especially against BYU. UConn shot just 35 percent compared to their season average of 50 percent.
When legendary programs with phenomenal coaches and players with comparable stats take the floor, it eventually all boils down to one thing" execution on game day. Even the minutest mistakes could make the difference, but if anyone can upset UConn to win the title it’s Stanford—at least that’s what Kara Lawson told me.