Country Day graduate sets her eyes on the NCAA final four

When the NCAA women’s basketball tournament tipped off on March 17, chances are that plenty of La Jollans were tuning in. That’s because Candice Wiggins, a 2004 La Jolla Country Day graduate and one of the greatest girls high school players in San Diego County history, was lacing them up for Stanford.

“I’m excited,” Wiggins said in the days leading up to the tournament. “This is what you work for. Everything that you do the whole year is for this. This is a really great time of year for us.

“I definitely feel like this year is a special year. It’s all about who’s feeling good, playing good and healthy. I think we have a good chance this year, and I’m excited.”

Wiggins’ Stanford Cardinal, the second-seeded team in the Fresno regional, were scheduled to face 15th-seeded Idaho State in the first round on March 17. A win would have pitted them against Old Dominion or Florida State on March 19, and they were likely to face third-seeded LSU in the round of 16 on March 24.

Stanford’s first two potential games were to be played in its home gym, Maples Pavilion, and the remainder of its regional at the Save Mart Center in nearby Fresno.

Wiggins has had the opportunity to play in the tournament each of her three years in college, but has never advanced to the Final Four. This year could be different, though, as at least two college basketball experts have picked the Cardinal to make the tournament semifinals.

The Cardinal almost surely would have earned an at-large bid anyway, but entered the NCAA tournament as the Pacific-10 Conference Tournament champions. Wiggins was her regular self in the tournament title game, scoring 20 points in a 62-55 win over Arizona State on March 5. In Stanford’s semifinals win over USC, Wiggins connected on a career-best and tournament-record eight 3-pointers, pouring in 29 points.

“She’s a tremendous player and can score in all aspects,” Arizona State guard Reagan Pariseau told the Associated Press after the conference tourney championship game, echoing the sentiments of many Stanford opponents. “We tried to contain her and came up a bit short.”

Wiggins is such an electric player that she became a focal point both offensively and defensively from the moment she set foot in Palo Alto, but her junior campaign has been a career-defining one.

In 27 games, she has averaged 16.9 points, combining with teammate Jayne Appel to make for a nearly impossible-to-stop double-headed scoring threat.

She helped Stanford enter the NCAA tournament riding a nine-game winning streak.

“Last year, we lost in the Pac-10 finals in a really heartbreaking game, and that was a really different experience having to regroup,” Wiggins said. “When you’re feeling good, you try not to be too high, but you’re really confident. You’ve been there, so you just feel good.”

In many ways, Wiggins’ junior season has been her most challenging. She missed five games in mid-season with a high right ankle sprain, and even a player with her mental resolve has to have felt the pressure that comes with lofty expectations.

“I’ve never sprained my ankle before in my career, so it was a new experience for me,” Wiggins said of the injury. “My body was kind of confused, and my ankle was tender. Yeah, it was hard. Our team did very well when I was out, but it still was hard to watch. I just hated it - I want to be a part of the action; I want to be a part of the wins.”

The preseason expectations may have weighed even more heavily on her.

Wiggins was named a preseason All-American by the Associated Press and and was on the preseason All-Pac-10 list. also named her the nation’s best off guard, Street and Smith named her a “Terrific 10" selection, and she was put on the watch lists for the Naismith Trophy, the Wade Trophy and the Wooden Award.

Many of the accolades have been due to the fact that she entered the season as Stanford’s all-time leader in scoring average at 19.6 points per game.

“I don’t see myself as any different or greater than my teammates,” Wiggins said, adding that she did her best not to dwell on the attention shined on her. “To me, getting those awards are just things that happen because people recognize that I enjoy playing and I’m on a successful team.

“But I’m honestly just focused on my team, and I think when I do that is when I play my best - when I’m not concerned with those expectations, because they can really get to you mentally. You just have to stay focused.”

With the tournament underway, Wiggins has just one goal in mind: winning a national championship.