TAMPA, Fla. (AP)—Candace Parker and Candice Wiggins made memorable first impressions on each other when they met on a basketball court as kids. Both hope the final snapshot from their stellar college careers will include a national championship.
“We were in a 13-year-and-under AAU tournament in Florida, actually. She was like 6-foot-2 at 12,” Wiggins said. “I remember being just like, wow, because she was different then. There’s nobody in the game like her. I think she’s carrying all the pressure and all of that really well and I really respect her for that.”
The feeling is mutual. Parker led Tennessee to its seventh national title a year ago and will try to help the Lady Vols become the first repeat champs since Connecticut won three straight from 2002-04, when they meet Stanford on Tuesday night for the championship.
“I remember watching her play when we were in eighth grade and we were watching the championship national game,” Parker said. “She was a ball of energy, always moving. I think she’s a great leader for her team and she really inspires by her play.”
While Parker clearly has raised the profile of her sport with her talent and persona, Wiggins has quietly led Stanford back to its first Final Four in 11 years.
“I understand what Candace Parker is to women’s basketball. She’s a very prominent figure, a prominent face, and I don’t expect any of that to change,” Wiggins said. “I don’t really see myself as ‘the other Candice, but I definitely understand the exposure that she gives to women’s basketball.”
Wiggins has done much for Stanford in four years, but kept her humility.
“She almost acts so surprised about everything, to be the USA Basketball player of the year, and if anyone saw her when she got the Wade she was shocked,” Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said. “She really is just very real and down to earth and it’s really fun to see someone with that kind of demeanor to have all these great things happen to them.”
The spotlight, of course, will be on the two stars, but the title might well be settled by others.
“We both realize we’ve got great support around us and I think that’s what it really comes down to,” Wiggins said. “And so it’s not me versus her, it’s Stanford vs. Tennessee.”
The Lady Vols (35-2), who beat LSU on Sunday night on Alexis Hornbuckle’s putback with seven-tenths of a second remaining and the Cardinal (35-3), who shocked UConn 82-73 in the other semifinal, are not strangers. The teams met Dec. 22 at Stanford, with the Cardinal winning 73-69 in overtime.
“I remember the Stanford game like it was yesterday,” Parker said. “We talk about how it ruined our Christmas and ending the year on a loss.”
Wiggins scored 22 and Rosalyn Gold-Onwude scored nine of Stanford’s 10 points in OT to end the Cardinal’s 11-game skid in the series. Parker had 25 points, 10 rebounds, four assists, four blocks and two steals.
“For us, the confidence of beating Tennessee is huge,” VanDerveer said. “I’m sure Pat (Summitt) might pull out that tape.”
Stanford enters the final with the nation’s longest winning streak at 23 games. The Pac-10 champs haven’t lost since dropping consecutive road games to UCLA and USC in the first week of January.
The Cardinal are riding high after avenging a November loss to UConn, a 12-point setback that prompted VanDerveer to tinker with her offense and gave Wiggins and her teammates a sense of how much work needed to be done.
“They’re a better team now,” Summitt said. “I’m glad that we’ve played them. We know their tendencies. … We’ve got our work cut out for us.”
Wiggins had 25 points, 13 rebounds and five assists to pace Stanford’s upset of UConn. Kayla Pedersen added 17 points and Jayne Appel, the Cardinal’s other 6-foot-4 post player, finished with 15 points and 10 rebounds.
Tennessee is 7-5 in championship games and barely made it to No. 13, needing that last-second putback from Hornbuckle and shooting just 30 percent.
“We’ve got to make shots,” Summitt said. “We were really overanxious and after watching the tape. I’m even more convinced of that.”