By DOUG FEINBERG, AP Basketball Writer
Stanford and Connecticut have developed one of the best rivalries in women’s basketball over the past five years.
Whether facing off in the national championship game, playing in the Final Four, or just meeting in the regular season, the two programs on opposite sides of the country have created compelling matchups.
The undefeated teams will renew their annual contest Saturday when the second-ranked Huskies (10-0) visit the No. 1 Cardinal (11-0).
“It’s a rivalry for us, but more than that, it’s a measuring stick,” said Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer, whose Cardinal have held the top spot in the poll for the past six weeks. “When the ball goes up, nobody cares anything about rankings.”
The last time the teams met in the Bay Area in 2010, the Cardinal ended the Huskies’ NCAA record 90-game winning streak. UConn will try and return the favor by snapping Stanford’s streak of 82 straight home victories.
“It’s going to be two really competitive teams, it’s going to be a dogfight,” UConn senior Kelly Faris said. “Two years ago that’s what it was.”
On the boards, Stanford’s 6-foot-3 Chiney Ogwumike will battle with UConn’s 6-5 Stefanie Dolson and 6-4 freshman Breanna Stewart. The younger sister of All-American Nneka Ogwumike, who graduated from Stanford, is averaging 21.8 points and 12.8 rebounds for the Cardinal.
Stewart is averaging a team-high 16.6 points and 7.2 rebounds, while Dolson is contributing 11.7 points and 6.0 rebounds per game.
It marks the 51st meeting between the top two teams in the poll. The No. 1 seed holds a 31-19 lead. UConn and Stanford have been in three of those contests over the past few seasons with the Huskies winning all of them.
“The 1 versus 2 thing makes for better TV, but it doesn’t change how we prepare,” Stanford’s Toni Kokenis said. “We are defending our home court, regardless of the opponent. But yeah, we ended their streak two years ago and I’m sure they want to do the same thing to us.”
Stanford hasn’t lost at Maples Pavilion since March 18, 2007, when Florida State beat the Cardinal in the second round of the NCAA tournament. UConn brought its streak to Stanford almost exactly two years ago only to see the Cardinal stop it with a 71-59 win in front of an enthusiastic crowd. VanDerveer expects a similar atmosphere Saturday.
“We’re excited we’re playing here,” VanDerveer said. “Our team has played very well, but that’s not the deciding factor. You have to make baskets and rebound and make stops. We know it’s what you do on the court.”
The Huskies, who beat Stanford in Hartford by 10 points last season, aren’t concerned about ending the Cardinal’s streak. They are just trying to improve.
“I don’t think I’d go out there with the mindset that we have to break their streak,” Faris said. “It’s another game. But the whole streak thing, if you focus on that, you’re not going to be doing the right thing.”
Both coaches are aware that it’s just one game in December with conference play about to start after the New Year.
“If you win on Saturday you know you beat a really good team,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “If you lose you know you got a lot of work to do to beat a really good team down the road.”
Connecticut leads the series 7-6, including winning five of the last eight meetings _ dating back to 2005. Stanford, unlike a lot of other teams in the country, has been able to stay close to the Huskies in the losses, losing most by a dozen points or less.
“You have two of the best offensive teams in the country, not to say we’re going to see who can win 110-109,” he said. “We try to make scoring and scoring often our priority. Maybe that’s why it’s become such a great rivalry.”
Unlike other rivalries in the sport that have ended during the past few years because of conference realignment or teams refusing to play each other, UConn and Stanford will continue for at least two more seasons. They will open next season in Connecticut.
“As long as Stanford wants to play we’ll play them. I have a lot of respect for them, obviously, as a university and certainly their coaching staff,” Auriemma said. “They’re great people. And the kind of people they recruit are great people. So I’m thrilled that it was done. Really. I think that’s a great thing for us.”
After playing Stanford, UConn will head to Oregon before going home to open up its Big East schedule.
“Playing games on the road at the early part of the season is very important,” Auriemma said. “Coming out here and playing Stanford and knowing how hard it is to play them, especially here. It’s a great opportunity for us at this point in the season. As soon as we’re done on this trip we have Notre Dame at home. Playing two teams in the top five in the country in a matter of a week or so is exactly what we need right about now.”
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