UConn-Stanford rivalry one of the best

By Carl Adamec

The first time the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team traveled to Stanford’s Maples Pavilion in 1988 was to play in the Cardinal Classic.

Stanford thought so much of the Huskies that the Cardinal made UConn their first-round tournament opponent thinking it would be the easiest path to the championship game. They were right. Stanford rolled to a 72-53 win.

Saturday, 24 years to the day of the first meeting, UConn returns to Maples Pavilion as the nation’s No. 2-ranked team to take on No. 1 Stanford in an early-season showdown.

“Those are the fun ones,” UConn senior Kelly Faris said. “The more intense, the more competitive, the harder you have to work, at least for me, I find those games to be more exciting. You get more of a thrill to play those games. Those are the games players look forward to.”

The Huskies lead the series with the Cardinal 7-6 but are 0-3 at Maples Pavilion. UConn also dropped a 94-75 decision at Stanford on Dec. 28, 1993.

The Cardinal (11-0) take an 82-game home winning streak into Saturday’s game.

“Just playing Stanford, you know they are going to give you their best game,” UConn All-American Bria Hartley said. “So I think we’ll all be excited to go play on their home court, and we are going to give them our best game.”

The UConn-Stanford rivalry, though only 13 games old, has had its significant moments.

The Cardinal’s first visit to Connecticut on Feb. 20, 1993, marked the first time the Huskies sold out Gampel Pavilion. Stanford won 68-54.

The teams’ first postseason meeting came in the 1995 NCAA Final Four semifinals at the Target Center in Minneapolis. Kara Wolters had 31 points in UConn’s 87-60 rout of Stanford. The next day, the Huskies beat Tennessee for their first national championship.

On Dec. 21, 1997, UConn met Stanford in the Honda Elite 4 Classic in Lakeland, Fla. Behind Nykesha Sales’ school record 46 points, the Huskies won 94-78.

The teams would not meet again until the 2005 NCAA Sweet 16 in Kansas City where Stanford ended UConn’s three-year reign as national champion with a 76-59 win.

But starting with a game in the 2007 Paradise Jam, Saturday’s contest will be their eighth in a five-year span including three in the Final Four.

“Rivalries usually becomee big rivalries because of the importance of each game,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “If it was just that we played each other during the regular season and didn’t play each other in the NCAA Tournament, it wouldn’t be that big. I think the Notre Dame rivalry became a big rivalry because it led to a bunch of NCAA tournament games. The same with Tennessee and the same with Stanford.

“The rivalries with some of the other schools aren’t as big, because we really haven’t had as much of a history in the NCAA tournament. When you play each other in the NCAA Tournament a lot of times that is what really escalates a rivalry.”

Stanford ousted UConn in the 2008 Final Four semifinals in Tampa 82-73. The Huskies would then win their next 90 games, including an 83-64 win in the national semifinals in St. Louis in 2009, and a 53-47 win in San Antonio in the 2010 NCAA final. Stanford would end the Huskies’ NCAA record winning 71-59 on Dec. 30, 2010, at Maples Pavilion.

Now the Huskies are back with the nation’s No. 1 ranking on the line.

“Obviously they are a great team, very smart, very competitive, a great rebounding team,” Faris said. “That gym is going to be packed. It is going to be loud. They are going to be physical with us. My sophomore year, maybe, we didn’t finish the game off, and we let them kind of beat us down. We have to have a different approach this time.”

UConn and Stanford announced last month that they have agreed to extend the series for two years. The Huskies will host the Cardinal for the 2013-14 season opener next November.