UConn Posied to Face Surging Stanford

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) -- With five NCAA titles and nine Final Four appearances on his resume, Connecticut's Geno Auriemma knows a thing or two about peaking at the right time.

His Huskies (36-1) have been the dominant team in women's college basketball all season and enter Sunday's national semifinals against Stanford (34-3) with a 15-game winning streak that includes four double-digit victories in the NCAA tournament.

Pretty impressive until you take a close look at the Cardinal, who have the tourney's hottest player in Candice Wiggins and a 22-game winning streak that's the biggest testament to how far they've come since a 12-point loss to UConn on Nov. 22.

"Connecticut in November, to me, was a machine. They played at an incredible pace. They were way ahead of us," said Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer, who retooled her offense following the loss and has won 31 of 33 heading into the rematch.

"I'm really thankful for that game. Our team is too. By playing them, I think we've really improved. We actually made some significant changes in our offense. I think our team could always look at that game and just say this is how we have to practice in order to ever play them again."

Wiggins has been the driving force, averaging 28 points in the NCAAs and becoming the first player to score more than 40 twice in the same tournament with 44 against Texas-El Paso and 41 against Maryland.

Auriemma said there's no comparison between the team UConn faced more than four months ago and the one that's played its best basketball of the season en route to Stanford's first Final Four appearance in 11 years.

"At this point in the season, when you get down to the last weekend, the only teams that are left are teams that are really, really hard to play against," said Auriemma, back in the Final Four for the first time since UConn won its most recent national title in 2004.

"So to be able to sit there and watch a lot of film and say, OK, we can exploit this weakness, this weakness and this weakness ... that's not easy to do, because if a team had a lot of weaknesses they wouldn't be here. So what you have to hope to do is play to your strengths. That's what we've always done when we've been in this situation."

The Huskies are 40-4 in the NCAA tournament over the past eight years and have taken the championship trophy home four times during that stretch.

They are back in the Final Four after a three-year absence, thriving despite losing starters Mel Thomas and Kalana Greene to knee injuries and having to rely more heavily on freshman forward Maya Moore and junior guard Renee Montgomery.

"It happened early enough that it did allow us a chance to regroup," Auriemma said. "We've been hiding it and we've been masking it and we've been covering it up, hoping that it would never catch up to us. So far it hasn't."

Moore was the Big East Player of the Year, and Montgomery has provided the floor leadership the Huskies lacked during their Final Four drought.

"I've never been in a Final Four situation or had a team that was capable of winning the national championship where you didn't have the best guard in the country. I think that's almost impossible to do, unless you get lucky. ... We're here because Renee Montgomery got us here with a lot of help," Auriemma said.

VanDerveer can say the same thing about Wiggins, who has literally carried the Cardinal - which starts three sophomores and a freshman - on her back.

Determined to not leave Stanford without making a trip to the Final Four, the 5-foot-11 senior has elevated her game in part because sophomore Jayne Appel and freshman Kayla Pederson have flourished since the Cardinal modified its triangle offense to revolve around two post players rather than one.

"The best thing I love about Jayne and Kayla and the team is that they're so young, but they're not afraid of anything," Wiggins said. "I just really love their mind-set. They have the biggest, brightest futures. You're going to be seeing them for the next years to come."

The development of the players around the Stanford star also has Auriemma's attention.

"It's funny to say this, but the reason why Candice is scoring so much is because the other guys are better," the UConn coach said.

"Back in November, I don't think she was able to score a lot of points against us because we didn't have to guard the other guys as well as we're going to have to guard them (Sunday night)."

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