MINNEAPOLIS—The showdown between Connecticut and Stanford in the Women’s Final Four semifinals here at the Target Center on Friday may feel very familiar. That’s because you’ve seen it many times before.
The game comes 27 years to the day after UConn beat Stanford in a previous semifinal, in the very same arena, en route to its undefeated season and first-ever national championship.
The teams still have the same coaches—Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer and UConn’s Geno Auriemma—and their programs are as dominant as ever. The Cardinal is the defending NCAA champion and has three titles total. The Huskies have 11 titles and are in their 14th consecutive Final Four.
Each team has halted at least one long winning streak by the other. They have met five times in the national semifinals or title game.
Yet this East Coast-West Coast rivalry has little visible edge—aside from the razor-sharp excellence on the court.
“It’s probably one of the more civilized rivalries in college women’s basketball,” said Jennifer Rizzotti, starting point guard on that 1995 UConn title team and now president of the WNBA’s Connecticut Sun.
That’s in part because of VanDerveer, Rizzotti said. While Auriemma, the late Tennessee coach Pat Summitt and former Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw all could wield sharp quips, “Tara keeps it real,” Rizzotti said. “She keeps it about basketball. She has her own level of quick wit, which is, you have to really pay attention sometimes to hear it….
“I think people appreciate the way she coaches, and the way that her team plays. They just get their job done. There’s just a joy to it. There’s a camaraderie to their players, a selflessness to the way they do things. It’s kind of hard to not like that.”
Among Stanford’s current stars are Haley Jones, the versatile, 6-foot-1 guard, and Cameron Brink, the 6-foot-4 leading scorer and shot-blocking threat.
UConn features offensive facilitator Christyn Williams, freshman phenom Azzi Fudd and 2021 national player of the year Paige Bueckers. Bueckers, a Minnesota native, helped convert a perilous double-overtime Elite Eight game against NC State into yet another UConn Final Four berth.
South Carolina plays Louisville in Friday’s other semifinal, with the winner facing whoever emerges from Stanford-UConn. The Gamecocks are the tournament’s top overall seed, but for now, the living history of the women’s game runs through the Cardinal and Huskies.
VanDerveer said that UConn probably enjoys an East Coast media bias—because Stanford games are often on when people in the East are sleeping.
“But we get to go back to beautiful California,” she said. “So I wouldn’t trade that. When I’m looking at the weather and I’m seeing the snowstorms in Hartford or Storrs (Conn.), I’m like, ‘I’m going to the pool, swimming—and it’s outside.’”
This is what passes for trash talk in Palo Alto, Calif. Her long-running competition with Auriemma is polite, not acidic. “I’ve never felt that we were adversaries in a negative way, but more competitors in a very good way,” she said.
Auriemma seems to want to stoke the rivalry a bit more.
When asked about a previous home-and-away series with Stanford, Auriemma said, “Yeah, it didn’t get renewed. I guess we played at their place, then they were supposed to come back to our place, and something got lost in translation, I guess.”
A Stanford spokesperson said in an email that the six-game series between the two teams ended in 2014, with “both teams making three trips to the other’s location.” VanDerveer said the Cardinal was “always open to scheduling, and it would be fun to at least go to a tournament that they’re at.”
The public civility doesn’t mean that the teams haven’t inflicted serious scars on one another.
Kate Starbird, a star on that 1995 Stanford team, took time from a busy career as a University of Washington associate professor—and one of the world’s top experts on viral misinformation—to dash off an email about the rivalry:
“I am hoping for some revenge this weekend for a particularly brutal semifinal loss in 1995 (in Minneapolis),” she wrote, adding a winking emoji. It was a brutal loss indeed: an 87-60 Huskies win, the most lopsided in the series. UConn leads the series overall, 11-7.
UConn and Stanford are two of the 31 NCAA women’s tournament teams that have posted 100% player graduation rates, and their tradition of strong students and athletes is long.
Stanford boasts Fran Belibi, the bespectacled junior forward studying human biology who can also dunk the ball. UConn previously featured Rebecca Lobo, the 1990s star who was inducted into the College Sports Information Directors of America Academic All-America Hall of Fame.
Lobo’s parents were educators. They were incredulous, she recalled, that she could have gone to Notre Dame or Stanford on an athletic scholarship but wanted to play for the Huskies.
“UConn’s a safety school,” she remembers them saying. Lobo added, “UConn’s not a safety school anymore, by the way.”
The 1995 Women’s Final Four had a full, raucous crowd, as is expected Friday, and UConn and Stanford featured players familiar to women’s college basketball fans.
The game is farther-reaching now than it was then, however, with the megaphone of social media and new NCAA rules that allow athletes to leverage their platforms to earn money on their name, image or likeness.
Lobo, now a women’s basketball analyst for ESPN, is working at the Final Four. Her kids didn’t ask her about returning to the scene of her legendary championship run with UConn in 1995.
“The only thing they care about is, ‘Which game are you doing?’ And I tell them. ‘Oh! Will you get to see Paige Bueckers?’” Lobo recalled. “I’m like, ‘Yes, I’ll get to see Paige Bueckers.’ Which is what they should care about, right?”
Write to Rachel Bachman at Rachel.Bachman@wsj.com
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