THE LAST time Stanford made it to the women's Final Four, in 1997, the Cardinal's two national titles (won in 1990 and '92) were twice as many as Connecticut's total and half as many as Tennessee's. Since then, those two powers have collected seven more championships between them, while Stanford's program has struggled to keep pace. In 2004, '05 and '06 the Cardinal made it to the Elite Eight, only to be stopped there every year. Last season's exit was even more distressing as Stanford, second-seeded, lost to 10th-seeded Florida State at home in the second round. "It was awful the way we ended last year," says 5'11 1/2" senior guard Candice Wiggins, the Pac-10's alltime leading scorer.
But with their 98--87 win over top-seeded Maryland in the Spokane Regional on Monday night, Wiggins and her teammates put the team's recent legacy of dashed expectations behind them and advanced to this week's Final Four in Tampa. Earlier that night LSU, behind 21 points and 12 rebounds from senior center Sylvia Fowles, defeated North Carolina 56--50 to win the New Orleans Regional. (The winners of the Greensboro and Oklahoma City regions were to be decided after SI went to press.)
Wiggins, who scored 41 points against Maryland and is a shoo-in to be a Women's Basketball Coaches Association All-America for the fourth straight year, won't say that getting to the finals was a personal mission, but she has played that way. Her 44 points in a second-round win over UTEP was the third-highest single-game total in women's NCAA tournament history. "She can be as explosive as anyone in the country," says Rutgers assistant coach Marianne Stanley, whose team was beaten by Stanford 60--58 in November. "That 44-point game was not the first time she has really lit up teams. Yet Stanford is so well-rounded that they don't need her to do that."
This year Wiggins is complemented by one of the most dominating post tandems in the country in 6'4" sophomore Jayne Appel, who has averaged 21.5 points in the tournament, and 6'4" freshman Kayla Pedersen, who has averaged 11.3 rebounds, including grabbing 16 in a 72--53 Sweet 16 win over Pitt. They'll have to play strong inside if the Cardinal is going to win its third national title this week. "I like this team," says Wiggins. "I've liked how hard we've worked, how no one complains. There is a toughness that I haven't seen since I've been here."