Stanford ready for big test from UCLA on Thursday
STANFORD – Tara VanDerveer is thrilled whenever her favored Stanford team gets a push from a Pac-10 opponent. It usually only happens a handful of times each season.
These days, it’s not often when two Pac-10 women’s teams face off both ranked in the top 10. Or when they’re also both unbeaten in conference play for that matter.
On Thursday night, No. 4 Stanford hosts eighth-ranked UCLA in an anticipated showdown at Maples Pavilion. The Cardinal are riding a 54-game home winning streak, have won eight straight overall and 42 in a row against Pac-10 competition. They have taken the last eight against the Bruins, too.
Stanford (14-2, 5-0 Pac-10) has already handled two-time defending NCAA champion Connecticut and is picked to win its 11th consecutive Pac-10 crown. But VanDerveer’s crew knows it must go through UCLA to get there.
The Bruins (15-1, 5-0) have their own five-game winning streak and already knocked off now-No. 11 Notre Dame in double overtime on the road in November under third-year coach Nikki Caldwell.
“I think it’s great. We need it,” VanDerveer said. “We need more than two, we need three and even four in the Top 25, I’d say. Especially next year, when we’ll have 12 teams, we want to get the attention of the East Coast and the Midwest and say, ‘Hey we play basketball out here, too.’ I think one of the best things that’s happened is UCLA beating Notre Dame, Arizona State beating DePaul, us beating UConn. We need more of that.”
This marks UCLA’s first time as a top 10 team facing another foe in the top 10 since Dec. 23, 1999, when the No. 6 Bruins played at top-ranked UConn. This is also the first Pac-10 game between a pair of top 10 teams since sixth-ranked Stanford beat No. 3 California 58-41 at Maples on Feb. 14, 2009.
The Bruins bring an aggressive game that can disrupt teams.
As VanDerveer puts it, “You can’t just come into the gym and stroll along and run your offense any way you want.”
Stanford has seen pretty much everything already. Looking to return for a fourth straight trip to the Final Four this spring and win the program’s first national title since 1992, the Cardinal played a grueling preseason schedule featuring Rutgers, Gonzaga, Texas, DePaul, Tennessee, Xavier and UConn.
They haven’t lost since dropping consecutive road games at DePaul and Tennessee last month.
“I think we’re prepared for that,” VanDerveer said of UCLA’s pressure. “We’ve played against Tennessee, we’ve played against UConn and Arizona State. These are teams that, their bread and butter, so to speak, is their defensive aggressiveness.”
Stanford soon could get guard Melanie Murphy back from her rehab for microfracture knee surgery to play limited minutes.
UCLA, in the top 10 again for the first time since January 2000, is counting on junior forward Jasmine Dixon to keep things going this week. She is averaging 11.6 points and 6.5 rebounds to help the Bruins to their best start since beginning the 1976-77 season at 18-1. UCLA’s conference start is its best since winning the program’s first six Pac-10 games in 2002-03.
“I like where we’re at. I like the spirit and intensity of this group, like that we have a more balanced attack,” Caldwell said. “Stanford has really carried the torch so to speak. We’ve got to make sure as a conference we’re doing what we can to promote the conference and West Coast basketball.”
Don’t count on UCLA being intimidated or having problems in Stanford’s imposing home venue.
The Bruins are 8-0 away from Los Angeles, 6-0 in true road games and 2-0 at neutral sites.
“This is going to be a great showdown,” Caldwell said. “This is going to be a great opportunity for us to gauge and see where we stack up against one of the best programs in the country. We’re starving to be better. That’s helping this team to grow and become better.
“We’ve got to put together 40 minutes. If you don’t, Stanford will run away with you.”