March 10, 2008
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SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) -Tara VanDerveer took Candice Wiggins aside and told her superstar senior to have fun. No matter what happened or the result, the coach said, Wiggins would still be the best player to come through the Pac-10.
And, wow, did Wiggins ever wrap up her conference career in style.
She produced her own 13-0 run in the first half and capped her Pac-10 career with 30 points, leading No. 4 Stanford past rival and eighth-ranked California 56-35 on Monday night for the Pac-10 tournament title and an automatic NCAA tournament berth.
"The thing about Candice, the bigger the game the better she plays," VanDerveer said. "Candice just put this tournament on her back."
The three-time Pac-10 Player of the Year and fan favorite, Wiggins shot 12-for-23 with five 3-pointers, and had three steals and four rebounds. She bounced back splendidly from one of her rare off days on offense a day earlier and was chosen tournament MVP.
"There was so much at stake and so much going on and I wanted to play a great game," Wiggins said, standing back while her teammates took their turns cutting down the net. "This is an emotional game and this was it for me, so you leave everything you've got on the court."
Top-seeded Stanford won its 18th straight game and will take that momentum into the NCAA tournament on its home floor at Maples Pavilion later this month.
And the Cardinal (30-3) have to be counting on finally being rewarded with a No. 1 seed.
"We've done a lot this year that we haven't done in years past to deserve a No. 1 seed," Wiggins said. "I think so, but I obviously have a biased opinion."
Wiggins had 19 points in the first half on 7-of-12 shooting in just 14 minutes. That's after the senior star shot 6-for-21 and missed all six of her 3-point tries in a semifinal rout of UCLA on Sunday.
When she hit a 3 with 13:40 left Monday, Wiggins jumped and raised her arm in delight. After scoring on a pretty pass from Jayne Appel with 11:07 to go, Wiggins extended her arm to point at her teammate with her tongue hanging out. She made a driving layin and was fouled with 8:52 to go, slapping both hands on the floor in celebration after falling over Alexis Gray-Lawson.
She sat down for good to a standing ovation with 4:17 left and acknowledged the crowd.
"She's a big-time player and I've said it a million times: She's a better person than she is a player," VanDerveer said, standing with her arm wrapped around Wiggins. "Everyone saw how talented she is. I thought she would have a big game today."
Cal's Devanei Hampton, who topped Wiggins as last year's Pac-10 Player of the Year, struggled yet again, going 2-for-15 with only five points. No one scored more than six points for the Golden Bears (26-6) in their first Pac-10 tournament final, and they were outrebounded 46-38. Ashley Walker went 1-for-6 with two points, scoring for the first time with 6:16 left.
"We just didn't compete tonight," Cal coach Joanne Boyle said. "I'm sure there are a lot of reasons. We can analyze the film."
Stanford beat its rival for a third straight time this season and now gets to host the first and second rounds on The Farm on March 22 and 24. The Cardinal have made a strong case for the top seed out West.
"I definitely think they're a one seed," Boyle said.
They would like nothing more than to ride Wiggins all the way to their first Final Four since 1997.
"When you have 19 points at halftime, pretty much everything is going your way," said Cissy Pierce, Stanford's only other senior along with Wiggins. "We're always fired up to play Cal with the rivalry and we knew a lot of fans would come out."
Confetti sprayed from the corners of the court at HP Pavilion after the final buzzer, a celebration of the success both top-10 programs have had this season. And what a way for this event to leave Northern California: with two Bay Area rivals both headed to the NCAAs. The conference tournament moves to Los Angeles for two years starting in 2009 after six years in San Jose and one in Eugene, Ore.
Still, HP Pavilion was only about half full for the final.
This one stung more for the Bears than a two-point loss to Stanford in Berkeley on Feb. 23.
"For this game, to not even be in it was tougher for us," Gray-Lawson said.
Boyle's mother, Joan Boyle, sat in the stands holding a blue "Go Bears" placard, but that wasn't enough for inconsistent Cal to pull off the upset. The Cardinal have the experience, with Stanford reaching the tournament title game in all seven years of the event's existence - and winning for the fifth time.
Appel had 14 rebounds, five assists and four blocks for Stanford. The sophomore center swatted her tournament-record ninth shot in three games when she blocked Hampton midway through the first half and finished with 12. Appel did a great job defending and fronting Hampton and had already pulled down five rebounds 10 1/2 minutes into the game.