- Michelle Smith, Contributor, espnW.com
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Two years ago at Maples Pavilion, on a chilly California night just before the turn of the New Year, the building vibrated.
The Connecticut Huskies came west with a NCAA-record 90-game winning streak and the nation's best player.
By the time Stanford ended that streak, leading start to finish in a 71-59 victory, delirious fans roared, former Stanford players were rushing the court, Connecticut players looked a little stunned and a smiling Cardinal coach Tara VanDerveer sensibly reminded everyone that it was only December.
Fast forward to 2012 and it's still only December. But that doesn't mean Maples won't vibrate again.
One of the biggest nonconference games of the season -- and one of the best rivalries in women's basketball -- is back at a sold-out Maples Pavilion on Saturday.
It's Ogwumike versus Dolson. VanDerveer versus Auriemma. A team that has been to five straight Final Fours versus the only other team that has also been there each time. And as an added bonus, Stanford and Connecticut meet as the top two ranked teams in the country (for the third time in four years).
"It's a rivalry for us, but more than that, it's a measuring stick," said VanDerveer, whose Cardinal have been ranked No. 1 for six weeks. "When the ball goes up, nobody cares anything about rankings."
Coach Geno Auriemma said Connecticut is about to step into what "may be the hardest place in the nation for a visiting team to play." He is preparing his team for battle against one of the few programs in the country truly undaunted by the name across the front of the Huskies' jerseys.
"Stanford recruits the same type of kids we do," Auriemma said. "They are extremely well-coached and always have tough, physical players. It's always a challenge to play them out there."
Stanford (11-0), which graduated All-American Nneka Ogwumike, started out third in the preseason top-25 polls. Defending NCAA champion Baylor was No. 1, followed by Connecticut and its out-of-the-park freshman class.
But Stanford pulled the early-season upset over Baylor in Hawaii and has hung tough since, including a dominant win at Gonzaga and road wins at South Carolina and Tennessee.
Still, some might have been surprised when the Cardinal leap-frogged the Huskies (10-0) in the polls after beating the Lady Bears in Hawaii.
"In their eyes, I'm sure [the Huskies] think they deserve the No. 1 ranking at times, and there's an argument to be made," Stanford forward Chiney Ogwumike said. "I'm sure they are hungry."
As if anyone needed additional motivation for a 1-2 showdown.
"These are the fun games. The more intense, the more competitive, the harder you need to work, the more exciting they are to play," Connecticut senior Kelly Faris said. "There is more of a thrill involved."
While some of the nation's best programs -- Maryland, Penn State, Duke, North Carolina -- have stepped into the fray with Connecticut in recent years and come out definitively vanquished, Stanford has fared much better. Connecticut leads the all-time series 7-6, though Stanford is 3-5 in the last eight meetings, dating back to 2005. Almost all of those losses were by a dozen points or less.
Connecticut's closest wins so far this season are a couple of 15-point victories. Stanford beat Baylor by two points and edged South Carolina by four. Chiney Ogwumike scored 18 points on 8-of-14 shooting in the former, and added 21 points and 15 rebounds in the latter.
The junior forward, in fact, has graduated quite nicely from her role as "Nneka's little sister" to find her place -- which seems to be everywhere within a 20-foot radius of the basket. Ogwumike is averaging a stellar 21.8 points and 12.8 rebounds (though it's worth noting she scored just three points on 3-for-12 shooting in a November 2011 matchup in Hartford, Conn.). Her game has matured, rounded out and perhaps most importantly, she has stayed on the floor and out of foul trouble.
"She's our rock and we weren't sure we were going to get that from her," VanDerveer said.
Connecticut, meanwhile, has a little of everything: veteran leadership in Faris and Caroline Doty, an inside-outside game in Bria Hartley and Stefanie Dolson, and young stars in sophomore Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and freshman sensation Breanna Stewart, who has already scored more points in the first 10 games of her college career than any player in the history of the program.
Will this game be won inside, based on Dolson's ability to use her size to contain Ogwumike's scoring and rebounding?
Will it be won on the outside, where the Huskies have already hit 90 3-pointers (including 26 by Mosqueda-Lewis) this season at better than a 40 percent clip?
Or is it simply time for payback? The Huskies have a chance to halt
the Cardinal's 82-game home winning streak.
"The 1 versus 2 thing makes for better TV, but it doesn't change how we prepare," Stanford junior guard 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."
For the third time in four years, Stanford and Connecticut clash in a battle of the top two ranked teams in the country.