Virginia did its best to slam it shut, but the cover of what people here are calling a storybook season for Jennifer Azzi and the Stanford Cardinal won’t be closed until Sunday.
Fighting off a young and aggressive Virginia team, Stanford was played scrappy defense and won an NCAA women’s semifinal game, 75-66, Friday night.
“It wasn’t the Stanford team people are used to watching,” Coach Tara VanDerveer said. “We came out tight, not able to run our offense like we wanted to, and you’ve got to give Virginia’s defense credit for that.”
As for Azzi, the saga continues.
“It felt like a home game, but on a different court,” said Azzi, from nearby Oak Ridge. The 5-foot-9 guard was well-received by the 17,601 at the Thompson Boling Arena. She figures to be popular again Sunday when her hometown fans return for the conclusion of her brilliant college career as the Cardinal plays Auburn for the national title. Auburn upset No. 1 Louisiana Tech, 81-69, in Friday’s other semifinal.
And as she has done all season, Azzi figured prominently in Friday’s outcome, keying a first-half run with three-point shots and finishing with 15 points, six rebounds, five assists and three steals, two of them in the game’s final minutes.
She held guard Tammi Reiss to two-of-13 shooting from the field. Reiss, a 5-6 sophomore guard whose style many compare to Azzi’s, finished with 11 points, making all seven of her free throws.
“I watched a video of her and she does the same thing every time,” Azzi said. “She either pulls up or goes all the way to the basket. She’ll probably learn something from this.”
However, as is also typical of a Stanford team making its first appearance in the final four, a balanced effort eventually did in the Cavaliers.
Forward Katy Steding led four Stanford players in double figures with 18 points. Center Trisha Stevens had 16, Azzi 15 and guard Sonja Henning 12.
“I’m afraid they had a few too many weapons for us,” said Coach Debbie Ryan, whose team starts only one senior and is also appearing in the final four for the first time. “Still, holding a team that averages 93 points a game to 75 points is an accomplishment in itself.”
The only time the Cardinal--which went 5-23 four years ago--has scored fewer points this season was in the season-opener when it scored 73 against Michigan State.
“They were poised for young team,” VanDerveer said. “I guess they’re not that young anymore.”
Taken out of its running game by a Virginia team that adhered to its one-on-one game plan, Stanford had trouble setting up an outside shot and getting the ball inside.
The Cardinal shot only 40.5% in slowly building a 42-38 first-half lead. It shot no better the rest of the game.
However, the experience and balance of Stanford (31-1) began to take its toll on the Cavaliers (29-6) in the game’s later stages.
Henning, whom VanDerveer calls women’s college basketball’s “best-kept secret,” and center Trisha Stevens combined for eight points to begin the second half, and, with a three-point shot by Steding, the Cardinal opened a nine-point lead with 13:05 remaining.
That lead was 13 points at 7:20, but 6-5 center Heather Burge, who had played little in the first half because of foul trouble, scored the Cavaliers’ next 10 points and the deficit was cut to 67-59 with 2:55 left. That was as close as Virginia could get.