Tough early season matchups test top women's hoops teams

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NASSAU, Bahamas (AP) — Tara VanDerveer loves to ski.

Stanford's Hall of Fame coach compared her seventh-ranked team's schedule this past week to going down one of the toughest trails on a difficult mountain, after the Cardinal played three AP Top 25 teams in a span of three days in the Bahamas. Stanford came away with two wins, beating No. 4 Indiana and second-ranked Maryland.

“If I had to do it over again, I probably wouldn’t take this team to the top of the mountain and go down the double black diamonds, but that’s what I’m doing,” said the winningest coach in women's college basketball. “I'd have been on some greens or blues instead of double black diamonds. They are welcoming the challenge.”

It’s not just the defending national champions that are facing tough competition early on. So far, in the first few weeks of the season, there already have been half a dozen matchups between teams ranked in the top seven in the poll.

Four of those matchups took place over the past week in the Bahamas, where the top five teams traveled for pair of tournaments. There never has been such a collection of talented teams assembled in one place during the regular season.

ESPN analyst Deb Antonelli, who helped put together the Baha Mar tournament field in Nassau, couldn’t remember a time with so many quality early season games between top teams.

“I’ve been saying all season the product is the narrative and it’s really true," she said. "The game is so good right now. The most appealing part of being here to teams was the level of competition.”

There are more top matchups on the way over the next couple of weeks, with the Big Ten/ACC challenge featuring Indiana and North Carolina State. Top-ranked South Carolina has games against Maryland and Stanford in December.

“Teams are playing a much more competitive schedule and learning about themselves in November to prepare themselves for what lies ahead,” Maryland coach Brenda Frese said. “It’s exciting for women’s basketball.”

Frese, whose team is beset by injuries and illness, is facing one of her most daunting season schedules in years. Two years after winning the national championship in 2006, the Terrapins faced six ranked teams in November and December. This time around, the No. 2 Terrapins played No. 6 Baylor, No. 5 N.C. State and Stanford in three consecutive games over the span of six days, beating the Bears and losing to the Wolfpack and the Cardinal.

VanDerveer's team also just finished up a difficult stretch. The Cardinal faced four ranked teams in six games, going 2-2, including three tests in the Bahamas. Stanford played three consecutive days against No. 4 Indiana, No. 18 South Florida and Maryland.

Even before the tournament in the Bahamas, Stanford lost at home to Texas and played on the road against a tough Gonzaga squad.

“We all wanted to be tested early I think,” VanDerveer said. “We have so much respect for our league and prepare our kids for what they have to look forward to in the Pac-12. This is great for our game. This is a barometer where we’re at. This is going to serve us well down the road.”

What the week showed is that there could be a lot of contenders for the NCAA championship this season. No. 1 South Carolina left still undefeated but challenged by UConn. The season isn’t even a month old and six of the top seven teams already have at least one loss, all to each other.

Dawn Staley's Gamecocks won the inaugural women's Battle 4 Atlantis on Nov. 22, beating the then-No. 2 Huskies. That came after a rout of then-No. 9 Oregon.

“It gives us another top-10 win,” Staley said after the UConn victory. “We said it before this game. Whether we win or lose, it can only help us.”

That seems to be the mantra from so many of the top coaches.

“No one likes losing,” N.C. State coach Wes Moore said. “Playing the top teams in the country won’t hurt you that bad at the end of the day.”


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