Michelle Smith Final Four notebook: On Stanford's plan vs. Paige Bueckers, a storied rivalry and Prechtel's persistence
MINNEAPOLIS - In this city, back in 1995, the Connecticut Huskies cemented their spot as an elite women’s basketball program with a national semifinal win over…the Stanford Cardinal.
The Huskies would move on to win their first NCAA title, which is now one of 11 for coach Geno Auriemma and Connecticut.
“Every memory that I have about that game is burned into my mind,” Auriemma said of that matchup against the Cardinal, the day before these two teams will meet in the Final Four for the sixth time, with the Huskies holding a 4-1 advantage in those meetings. “I can probably remember every single possession. I can remember every timeout, halftime what we did, where we stayed, everything, because everything was just so big.”
It is no less big now, but now these two programs are longtime national rivals.
“We have been competing for a long time, playing against each other,” Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said. “I've learned a lot from competing against them…I would say -- you know, Geno likes to kind of get in little battles with people. Maybe it was Pat when Pat was alive, or Muffet, but I don't know. I like him, and I think we get along really well. I've never felt that we were adversaries in a negative way but more competitors in a very good way.”
Stanford ended two long Connecticut winning streaks at Maples Pavilion - the NCAA-record 90-game winning streak in 2010 and a 47-game win streak with an overtime victory in 2014.
The two teams played a home-and-home series from 2009 and 2016 and haven’t played since November of 2017 in a preseason tournament in Columbus.
“I think like us, they haven't changed much over the years,” Auriemma said. “They still play the same style of play. When you watch them, you know exactly what you're going to get...They play hard, they play together, they play positionless most of the time, they shoot the ball great every year. It's the same Stanford team that I remember 25, 27 years ago playing around here."
The book on Paige
Connecticut has super-sophomore Paige Bueckers back after missing 19 games with a knee injury . She came up huge for the Huskies in their double-overtime win over North Carolina State, finishing with 27 points. Bueckers, a Minnesota native, will be playing in front of a hometown crowd.
The Cardinal is well aware of the damage that Bueckers can do, but she is hardly UConn’s only weapon, VanDerveer said.
“You're not going to get here without having a balanced team. So they have everything that you need: Paige; Azzi Fudd is a great shooter; Christyn Williams, No. 1 player in the country coming out of high school; three of their perimeter players are the No. 1 players in the country,” VanDerveer said. “They're skilled. They're talented. They play well together. Inside they've got Olivia Nelson-Ododa, they've got (Aaliyah) Edwards. They're physical, they rebound. It's always a total package at this point. It's not one player.”
Prechtel stays ready
In last year’s Final Four, Ashten Prechtel came off the bench in both the national semifinal and the title game to hit some very big shots.
In the semifinal game against South Carolina, Prechtel had nine points and eight rebounds. In the national title game against Arizona, she finished with seven points, eight rebounds, three assists and a block in 21 minutes.
Prechtel is averaging just under 10 minutes a game this season, averaging 2.7 points and 2.5 rebounds with 15 3-pointers off the bench.
”The most important thing for me is just to be ready whenever we need it, and I think that's the case for everyone on our team,” said Prechtel. “I think that everyone, even people who don't get the chance to play, all have the capability to do the same thing. It's just a matter of staying ready and being ready to go in when your name is called. That's just something that I try to do and focus on, and sometimes it works out.”