March 19, 2009

Stanford felt it should have been a top seed entering last season's NCAA tournament, but didn't have trouble cruising all the way through its region until a loss in the national championship game.

The Cardinal may have similar motivation this season - even if they won't admit it.

Stanford is the second-ranked team in the country, but will be just a No. 2 seed in the Berkeley Regional Saturday night when it hopes to begin a path back to the Final Four with a first-round game against 15th-seeded UC Santa Barbara in San Diego.

The Cardinal (29-4) lost All-American guard Candice Wiggins from the team that lost to Tennessee in the national title game last season, yet with a strong core coming back was ranked second in the AP preseason Top 25.

That's exactly where they'll be entering the 2009 NCAA tournament, but like last season, they may have to go through a higher-seeded team to reach the championship game. Duke, which won neither the ACC regular-season nor tournament title and is No. 6 overall, was handed the No. 1 slot in the Berkeley Regional.

The Cardinal, on the other hand, have won 16 games in a row and cruised to the Pac-10 regular-season and tournament crowns.

Then again, the Blue Devils did beat then-No. 3 Stanford 56-52 in Durham on Dec. 16.

"Sometimes you throw seeding out the door," coach Tara VanDerveer said. "We're the only team to lose to a No. 16 (to Harvard in 1998), so we understand anything can happen. It's about playing well and playing hard."

Wiggins won't be around to lead the way this year, but junior center Jayne Appel has done a solid job as the team's leader. Appel averaged 14.8 points, 8.9 rebounds and 2.9 assists on her way to being named Pac-10 player of the year.

She hasn't been alone, however. Sophomore guard Jeanette Pohlen averages 11.0 points and a team-high 3.8 assists, and classmate Kayla Pedersen averages 11.3 points and 7.9 boards.

Pedersen had a season-high 25 points in the Cardinal's 89-64 win over USC in the Pac-10 tournament championship game on Sunday.

"It's good to know that we totally don't have to depend on Jayne," VanDerveer said.

"We're playing our best basketball right now. I feel good about the way we are playing. We want to keep it going as long as we can."

UC Santa Barbara (22-9) is making its 11th appearance in the tournament in the past 13 years after punching its ticket with a 64-47 win over Cal Poly in the Big West tournament final on Saturday.

The Gauchos were seeded 13th in the NCAA tournament last season after entering with a 22-8 record, but even with a lower seed this time around they'll be hoping for a better result. UCSB was routed 86-52 in the first round last season by fourth-seeded Virginia.

Senior Lauren Pedersen is the Gauchos' best player, and she became the first UCSB player in 15 years to lead the team in points (13.0), assists (4.2) and steals (2.3).

UCSB's trademark, however, is its defense, which is seventh nationally in opponents' field-goal percentage (34.4) and 19th in points allowed (54.9 per game).

The winner will face either seventh-seeded DePaul or 10th-seeded San Diego State on Monday night.