The difference between the Stanford Cardinal and the other two national title contenders in college basketball is their balance - no player accounts for more than 20% of their total statistical output. But the difference between Stanford and every other team outside the top three is that they arguably have two or three players who could be the top player on any Top 25 team.
That starts to explain what's meant by saying Stanford is the best "team" in the nation even if only one voter seemed to believe they deserved a first place vote in the national polls entering this week - their combination of depth, discipline, talent and versatility makes them as tournament-ready as any team in the nation. And since losing two games at less than 100%, they've been a different team, which those who do more than score-watch can tell rather easily.
Among the strongest arguments keeping Stanford from earning a #1 vote despite ending UConn's historic streak and flattening Xavier has been that they didn't have a road win against a quality opponent.
So in getting a 67-53 win at UCLA yesterday with Nneka Ogwumike sidelined due to injury - against a Bruins team that aims to make games ugly, pressures perimeter players into mistakes, and rebounds well - Stanford only reinforced the notion that they indeed have the best unit as a whole even if they don't have individuals like Brittney Griner or Maya Moore.
Key player: Toni Kokenis comes off the bench and starts the second half to help Stanford counter UCLA's defensive pressure
Cardinal coach Tara Vanderveer said in her video preview of the weekend in LA that they would need help from the bench to win this weekend. Today that player to step up was Toni Kokenis who played as well as she has all season with 13 points on 5-for-8 assists and a true shooting percentage of 73.19%. However, her numbers don't entirely capture why Vanderveer inserted her into the starting lineup in the second half - the freshman came into the game and actually had a calming presence and helped the Cardinal execute around the Bruins press.
Stanford statistical MVP: Chiney Ogwumike fills the void her sister left on the boards.
The player who really stepped up for Stanford was Nneka's sister Chiney. And if she can play this well as a freshman, she is going to be an unstoppable force with experience. It was clear early on that Nneka's ability to score on the block would be missed: put simply, Chiney is not yet as refined in the post as her older sister. As a result, Stanford never really established an inside-out or high-low game that they sometimes like and the fluidity of their offense suffered. However, Chiney does know how to find her way to the free throw line and ended up with 12 attempts of which she hit 10. But Chiney really led by being dominant on the boards in the second half after UCLA muscled them on the boards in the first She finished with 15 rebounds, including grabbing 30% of the available defensive rebounds, which there were plenty of.
Key statistic: UCLA struggles to make anything in the second half.
UCLA could probably stay with anyone in the country if they'd consistently make layups. In the first half, they dominated the offensive boards and established a 14% offensive rebounding percentage differential to go into halftime with a tie. However, their two point percentage of 30.43% also points to the fact that they weren't converting anything inside. Surprisingly for a team that entered the game ninth in the conference in three point shooting (26.9%), their 3-for-6 first half shooting kept them in the game.
In the second half, the poor two point percentage continued (33.33%) but they also stopped hitting threes (0-for-5). It reinforces that Stanford is not only a good defense, but also that they're an athletic defense that can run and keep up with a team like UCLA that thrives off athleticism, crashing the boards hard, and scoring out of chaotic defense. UCLA normally shot 44.8% from the field for the season; Stanford held them to 31.1% shooting for the game and 28.1% in the second half. That's without their veteran low post player.
UCLA statistical MVP: Jasmine Dixon continues her strong board work.
Despite shooting 3-for-13, Dixon did a lot of other things well throughout the game beginning with grabbing 27.77% of the offensive rebounds available to her. The game-high 8 offensive rebounds she pulled in obviously contributed significantly to the Bruins' rebounding advantage. But that's not entirely what made Dixon's 10 point, 12 rebound double-double performance impressive. Dixon still found her way to the free throw line at a rate of 38.46% and never truly disappeared even though Stanford's defense did their best to stifle them.