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Wiggins' 41 points lift Cardinal to first Final Four in 11 years

SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) -- There were still three seconds on the clock when Candice Wiggins started hopping around the court.

All Wiggins wanted to do was celebrate, and the best player in Stanford history deserved it.

After all, Wiggins is the one that finally got the Cardinal back to the Final Four.

"We did have that mission," Wiggins said. "I knew this was the team that could do it."

Wiggins put together perhaps the best performance in her stellar career on The Farm, scoring 41 points and leading second-seeded Stanford past No. 1-seed Maryland 98-87 in the Spokane Regional final on Monday night.

Just a week ago the three-time Pac-10 player of the year scored a career-best 44 points, the third-highest total in tournament history. But that was against UTEP and in Wiggins' final game on her home court at Stanford.

But this was in the regional finals, where Wiggins had twice failed earlier in her career, and against a Maryland lineup that returned four starters from its national championship team of two years ago.

Playing with a swagger and confidence bred from being denied a No. 1 seed in the tournament, the Cardinal are back in the Final Four for the first time in 11 years. They will face either Connecticut or Rutgers in the national semifinals in Tampa.

Thanks to Wiggins.

"We knew we had a special team," Wiggins said. "We felt slighted. Everyone in America could see the looks on our face when we got the 2 seed. We knew we were No. 1 and we proved it."

Wiggins is the first player in tournament history with two games of 40 points or more, and her 41 on Monday night is the fifth best outburst.

And if trying to stop Wiggins wasn't enough of a challenge for Maryland, she got help from a pair of unlikely sources -- freshman Kayla Pedersen and sophomore JJ Hones.

Hones scored a career-high 23 points -- then laid down on the giant NCAA logo at midcourt after the final buzzer as her teammates piled on. Pedersen added 15 points, seven assists and six rebounds as the duo made up for a night where Jayne Appel, Stanford's second leading scorer, was held in check and scored just 11.

"I'm so excited for our team," Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said. "It's a little surreal. It's been a while. They're great kids."

With a young supporting cast, Stanford took its cue from Wiggins, its senior star who failed in two previous regional finals as a freshman and sophomore. She danced all over the court, providing problems for the Terrapins, whether hitting step-back 3-pointers or rising between defenders in the lane.

She saved her best dancing for the very end, and recalled seeing LSU do the same two years ago in the regional finals.

"They were celebrating and dancing and I said 'I just want to dance like that, be in the Final Four,'" Wiggins said. "I had that image in my head, and sure enough we are going dancing."

Stanford won its 22nd straight, and will be the first Final Four team from West of the Rockies since the Cardinal's appearance in 1997. It will be Stanford's seventh Final Four trip, and the Cardinal matched a school record with their 34th win of the season, behind their third-highest scoring output of the season.

Meanwhile, the Terrapins (33-4) failed in their attempt to reach the Final Four two years after winning their only national title. Kristi Toliver led Maryland with a career-high 35 points, but was forced to be more of a scorer than distributor as ACC player of the year Crystal Langhorne was stymied by the swarming interior defense of Stanford.

Langhorne took just six shots and scored 13 points as Appel and Pedersen collapsed on Maryland's senior center every time she touched the ball. Langhorne scored 28 in Maryland's regional semifinal win over Vanderbilt.

"They made us work for any shot that we got," Maryland coach Brenda Frese said. "They made everything extremely difficult."

Added Langhorne, "They had a great game plan and did a great job."

Toliver did her best to rally Maryland and matched Wiggins, both scoring 24 in the second half, this night was about Stanford's star.

"We've had great teams and great individual players," VanDerveer said. "I don't know that there's been anyone that does more for their team than Candice does."

It was Wiggins who ignited the Cardinal's decisive run early in the second half. Toliver's 3-pointer got the Terrapins within 56-51 with 14:50 left, the closest they had been since trailing 41-38 late in the first half.

Wiggins immediately answered with a catch-and-shoot 3 of her own, and after a Maryland miss, Rosalyn Gold-Onwude, scoreless at the time, hit Stanford's 11th 3-pointer of the night.

Appel then blocked Laura Harper on defense, and put back Pedersen's miss for a 13-point Cardinal advantage. Pedersen then capped the spurt with a three-point play, yet another moment when the Cardinal's role players came through.

"They were just so hard to stop," Maryland's Laura Harper said. "They were all playing with confidence. Everything was working."

Maryland made one final charge. Toliver scored nine straight points to pull Maryland within single digits at 79-72 following a 3 with 6:19 to play. Wiggins answered with a 3 from the top of the arc moments later.

Toliver added a rainbow baseline jumper to stay within eight, but Maryland went 1 of 5 at the free-throw line over the next two minutes, missing its best chance to rally.

"Right now all I'm feeling is the loss and fact I don't get to play with my seniors anymore," Toliver said.