TAMPA — As much as tonight's Tennessee-Stanford showdown will be billed as Candace vs. Candice, the supporting casts surrounding Parker and Wiggins will ultimately play a large part in which All-American ends her college career a national champion.
"We both realize we have great support around us, and that's really what it comes down to," Wiggins said Monday. "It's not me vs. her. It's Stanford vs. Tennessee."
They are unquestionably the best players on their teams, but even the brightest of stars can offset each other. That puts the outcome in the hands of lesser-known standouts such as Stanford's 6-foot-4 "Twin Towers" of Jayne Appel and Kayla Pedersen or speedy Tennessee guard Shannon Bobbitt, who stands just 5-2.
When Stanford beat Tennessee in overtime in December, Wiggins took only 12 shots then scored only one in overtime as unheralded guard Rosalyn Gold-Onwude scored nine. In Sunday's semifinal win against LSU, Parker, playing with an injured left shoulder, missed 21 shots, 10 more than in any other game this season.
Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma said the difference between the Stanford team his Huskies beat in November and the squad that won Sunday was a scoring balance that requires a defense to respect all five Cardinal players.
"When the other players are making shots like they are right now for Stanford, it gives Candice a lot more room to maneuver and do what she wants to do," Auriemma said. "And then she's a really tough matchup. Those kids knocked in shots (Sunday) that didn't even come close to going in in November."
Stanford's emergence has come as the Cardinal moved beyond relying on Wiggins, Appel and Pedersen. Sophomore guard JJ Hones, who was scoreless in three minutes in the November loss to Connecticut, played 36 minutes Sunday, with 11 points and six assists.
"We had the Big Three and no one else," coach Tara VanDerveer said. "Probably the reason we're here is that we do have that balance, the improvement of Ros and JJ Hones. … I think that's been key to our team's improvement and development."
At the start of the season, Stanford faced gimmick defenses like a box-and-one, focusing on Wiggins, but trying such a defense now creates too many mismatches with the other Cardinal players.
"Other teams are realizing you can't key on one person on this team," Wiggins said. "We're not a one-player team at all. We all have each other's backs."
No. 2 seed Stanford (35-3) faces a nearly unprecedented challenge, in that only once since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1994 has a team beaten three No. 1 seeds to win a national championship. Baylor did in 2005, and Stanford has beaten two No. 1 seeds in Maryland and Connecticut.
The starting five for top seed Tennessee (35-2) has the advantage of all having played in last year's championship game, where Bobbitt went for 13 points and forward Alberta Auguste scored 10 off the bench. Center Nicky Anosike had 16 rebounds, matching the third-most ever in a championship game.
"Coming down the stretch (Sunday) night, the composure they had I think is because they've been there. They were there a year ago," Tennessee coach Pat Summitt said. "I think the fact that they've been to Final Fours and they have a lot of confidence in each other, I think that really helps us."
Stanford has the opposite perspective — that because none of its players has won a national championship, their drive for their first has to be more than Tennessee's players wanting a second consecutive ring.
"We want this just as bad. Nobody on our team has had a national championship," Gold-Onwude said. "Everybody on that team has been here before, so this is something we want."
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