By Doug Feinberg/The Associated Press
SAN ANTONIO — The Stanford Cardinal have wanted another shot at Connecticut ever since a 12-point loss in late December.
They’ll get their chance Tuesday night with the national championship and UConn’s place as one of the most dominant teams ever at stake.
The two teams have developed a cross-country rivalry over the past three seasons after Stanford beat UConn in the 2008 national semifinals. The Huskies haven’t lost since, beating the Cardinal twice during their NCAA-record winning streak — including in last season’s Final Four.
“We’ve kept them in the back of our minds,” Stanford center Jayne Appel said. “They know what we’re going to do, we know what they’re going to do.”
Sure, UConn is on the greatest run in women’s college basketball history, and, yes, they’ve torn through this NCAA tournament. But Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer and her players believe they have a shot at spoiling the coronation party in the national title game.
With a few tweaks here and there from their December loss to the Huskies, the Cardinal feel they can pull off the monumental upset, ending UConn’s 77-game winning streak and preventing its seventh national championship and second straight unbeaten season.
“We’ll do some things different, but a lot of the things that we need to do are easy to fix,” Stanford forward Kayla Pedersen said.
For 22 minutes the Cardinal hung right with UConn in December. Stanford shot 57 percent in the first half and held a 40-38 advantage at the break — the only time this season the Huskies trailed at halftime.
“I’ve watched the game several times and I know that we’re capable of beating them in 20 minutes,” VanDerveer said. “At the same time the second half of the game got away from us. We’ve probably focused more on how it got away from us.”
No team has been able to put together a 40-minute effort against UConn during its streak — each of the Huskies’ victories has been by double digits.
In the Stanford game, UConn jumped out to a 19-10 lead before star Maya Moore got in foul trouble. The Cardinal made their run with the three-time All-American on the bench.
Getting off to a good start will be critical for Stanford.
“That’s really the key for us,” VanDerveer said. “Against this team we got to stay in contact with them. We’re not a super athletic, pressing, trapping team that can come back from being down 15.”
Tuesday’s championship will mark the sixth time the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the final Top 25 poll will meet for the title. The last came in 2002 when UConn beat Oklahoma in San Antonio.
“This is what we’ve worked for and what we dreamed of since preseason,” Moore said. “We have a really good Stanford team in our way and it doesn’t take a whole lot to motivate us right now. There is so much on the line right now with our individual and team goals.”
Despite having to get through Oklahoma first, the Cardinal were already getting ready to play UConn. Appel said that she and a few other players packed UConn scouting reports in “the bottom of our suitcase.”
“We did a lot of things wrong, according to our scouting report. We weren’t very smart,” Appel said. “We watched this morning and we were like, ‘Gosh, that was so stupid,’ in the way that we played. It was like we didn’t even read the scouting report.”
Unfortunately, the scouting report doesn’t show exactly how well the Huskies have been playing lately. UConn’s turned up its stellar defense in the NCAAs, holding opponents to just 42 points a game. The Huskies are on pace to shatter tournament records for defensive efficiency.
Also, UConn has made a habit of dismantling teams in rematches. Last year, the Huskies met Louisville in the championship game for the third time that season and turned it into a rout within the first few minutes.
“There are some advantages and disadvantages for playing somebody twice on both sides,” coach Geno Auriemma said. “They’re playing us, and they know they lost and it got away from them badly in the second half. We know we played great in the second half. Hopefully, we can do that again.”
Moore has stepped up her game, averaging 24.2 points and shooting 60 percent from the field. When the rest of the team struggled against Baylor in the national semifinals, she and Associated Press player of the year Tina Charles took over. The pair formed a potent inside-outside combination and combined for 55 of the team’s 70 points.
“They had to do it all by themselves, pretty much,” Auriemma said.
Connecticut has entered the NCAAs unbeaten four times before, winning national titles in 1995, 2002 and last season, and losing to Tennessee in the regional final in ’97.