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Tuesday, April 8, 2008, | The four-time All-American picked up the Wade Trophy on Saturday as the national player of the year in women’s college basketball.

A day later, the 5-foot-11 guard led Stanford to an upset of No. 1-ranked Connecticut with 25 points, 13 rebounds and five assists. Her NCAA tournament this year includes two 40-point games – a first in women’s basketball – as she leads the Cardinal tonight against Tennessee in the NCAA final.

At mid-season, those who cover Pac-10’s women’s basketball wondered in print if the three-time Pac-10 Player of the Year — she’s the first woman to win the award three times — should be considered the greatest player in Pac-10 history.

So it’s time to speculate on similar greatness about the La Jolla Country Day alum: Is Candice Wiggins San Diego’s greatest women’s basketball player?

In San Diego men’s basketball, of course, there is no debate. Bill Walton stands alone. The Basketball Hall-of-Famer has been the greatest at all three levels — high school (Helix), college (UCLA) and NBA (13 years).

For two decades, Terri Mann stood alone as the Bill Walton of San Diego women’s basketball. There was no debate involving the legend that led Point Loma High to four state titles. The 6-foot-2 girl that played like a man was the 1987 USA Today National Player of the Year.

But unlike Walton, Mann’s college career at Western Kentucky ended prematurely with a knee injury. She wouldn’t enjoy college fame. In her era, there was no WNBA, so the next step of Olympic success also eluded her.

Retired Santana coach Wade Vickery, San Diego girls high school basketball’s all-time winningest coach, throws one more name in the mix.

San Diego High’s Charde Houston, whose career at Connecticut ended with Sunday’s loss to Stanford, and Wiggins were both McDonald’s All-Americans in 2004.

“That’s a tough one,” Vickery said. “Terri Mann, Candice Wiggins and Charde Houston are all right there.”

But if you include careers after high school, there is no debate. It’s Wiggins.

In addition to Wiggins’ college success at Stanford, she was USA Basketball’s Women’s Player of the Year in 2007. She led two USA national teams to gold medals last summer in the Under-21 World Championships in Russia and the Pan American Games in Brazil.

Before this year is out, Wiggins is expected to make the U.S. Olympic team for the 2008 Games in Beijing and then be chosen in the WNBA draft’s first round.

Wiggins’ college career has topped Houston’s, but Houston is still a talent with a future potential on the U.S. national team and in the WNBA.

But the question now is if Wiggins has surpassed Mann. They were, of course, different kinds of players.

Mann was a physical force inside that played with the athleticism of a much smaller player.

Wiggins is an athletic guard that can slash to the basket or hit 3-pointers. She also has an inside game, having been forced to guard forwards and centers in high school when LJCD frequently faced bigger lineups.

That experience, I believe, has made Wiggins a better college player than she was in high school, when she was the 2004 State Girls Player of the Year by CalHiSports.com, the leading authority in California prep sports. Wiggins led LJCD to CIF State Division V titles as a freshman and sophomore and Division IV runner-up finishes as a junior and senior.

Something else that separates Wiggins and Mann is their college decisions.

Wiggins was a top student at LJCD and Stanford was her dream school. That she has led the Cardinal to their first Final Four in 11 years makes her career that much sweeter.

Mann wasn’t a good student who was monitored about attending class. Her lack of interest in school led to her ill-advised decision to enroll at Western Kentucky, which at the time was a women’s national power.

Their two decisions speak volumes to the importance of picking a college for more than just athletics.

“That could be your tiebreaker,” Vickery said of their careers after high school. “But I will never say Terri Mann was better than Candice Wiggins or Candice Wiggins better than Terri Mann.”

Since Vickery was too torn to choose, I put it to him this way:

Would Bill Walton still be the best player in San Diego basketball if an injury had ended his career after high school?

“Yes,” Vickery said, “and I played against him in high school (at El Capitan), so I think I’m in a position to know. Bill Walton was that intimidating and that great.”

That would seem to suggest Mann deserves the benefit of doubt as San Diego’s greatest women’s basketball player, but my vote is for Wiggins.

I remember the first time I saw her as a high school freshman. I had heard so much about her, which inevitably leads to a letdown once you see such a highly touted athlete play. But I came away amazed. Even as a high school freshman, she had the body control of a college athlete.

Wiggins grew up in Poway and is the daughter of the late Alan Wiggins, the speedy second baseman that was the catalyst of the Padres’ 1984 World Series team. The Padres, hopefully, will invite her to throw out a ball at a game before the 2008 season ends. She’s that big of a name in San Diego sports.

Candice Wiggins is on her way to earning a place alongside San Diego’s greatest women athletes. Before she is done, she could end up the Maureen Connolly of tennis, the Mickey Wright of golf, the Gail Devers of track and the Shannon MacMillan of soccer.

Tom Shanahan is voiceofsandiego.org‘s sports columnist. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions and an occasional writer for Chargers.com. You can e-mail him at toms@sdhoc.com. Or send a letter to the editor.

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