Women’s college hoops fans are well-acquainted with the Stanford Cardinal’s crazy season.
While COVID-related policies and precautions caused every team to encounter unprecedented challenges throughout the 2020-21 season, only Stanford had to spend 63-straight days on the road, unable to play in Palo Alto due to gathering restrictions in Santa Clara county.
Even after they were permitted to again play in Maples Pavillon, additional road games, followed by the Pac-12 tournament, prevented the Cardinal from spending more than two consecutive weeks on the Stanford campus. Nonetheless, Stanford still won the Pac-12’s regular season and tournament titles.
Yet, the Cardinal have reached another level in the NCAA tournament.
As they have spent nearly 20 days in San Antonio — the most extended time they have been in once place all season — perhaps it should be unsurprising that the Cardinal have looked quite comfortable.
While only Kiana Williams hails from San Antonio, it seems the whole Stanford squad has felt at home in the Alamodome. The No. 1 overall seed in the tournament, the Cardinal have survived, and thrived, in their five games in San Antonio, putting themselves on the precipice of their first national championship in nearly thirty years.
Here’s three important ways Stanford’s sense of comfort in San Antonio has them ready to claim the program’s third national title:
Comfort in depth
Entering the NCAA tournament, Stanford’s depth encouraged many prognosticators to predict the Cardinal to win the national championship.
Of course, depth in theory does not always translate to depth in practice. Oftentimes, in do-or-die games, head coaches struggle to trust their depth, restricting their rotations to six or seven players in an effort to exert as much control as possible on the action. Yet, head coach Tara VanDerveer has continued to trust — and find comfort in — her squad’s depth. For the regular season, Pac-12 Tournament and NCAA Tournament, nine Cardinal have averaged at least 10 minutes per game.
It was this expert utilization of depth throughout the season that contributed, among many other things, to VanDerveer being named the Naismith women’s basketball coach of the year for the third time in her career. In the pressure-packed cauldron of the postseason, she has not abandoned this principle — and it has paid off.
Most notably, Ashten Prechtel, who has served as the Cardinal’s third big for much of the season, provided Stanford with the perfect — literally — spark during their Elite Eight matchup with Louisville. After not seeing the court in the first half, Prechtel’s 16 second-half points, on a 6-of-6 performance from the field, propelled the Cardinal’s comeback against the Cardinals, and punched a ticket to the Final Four.
First half: 0 minutes— Stanford Women’s Basketball (@StanfordWBB) March 31, 2021
Second half: 16 minutes, 16 points, three rebounds, four assists, two blocks and a perfect 6-for-6 shooting from the floor @ash10prechtel is the definition of a .#GoStanford pic.twitter.com/feWF9VrBW7
Against South Carolina in the Final Four, VanDerveer again put her trust Prechtel, with the sophomore scoring nine points and grabbing eight boards in 24 minutes of solid play.
It will not be surprising when VanDerveer calls on another somewhat unexpected member of the Cardinal to step up in the national championship game.
Comfort behind the arc
Stanford finished the regular season seventh in the nation in both 3-pointers attempted (741) and 3-point percentage (38.34). In San Antonio, they have increased their prolificness and proficiency from behind the 3-point line.
In only five games, Stanford has set the all-time record for 3-pointers made in the NCAA tournament, sinking 56 treys so far.
Their 56 makes have come on 115 attempts, giving them a superb percentage of 48.7.
However, the 3-ball did not necessarily spur their Final Four victory over South Carolina, as Stanford shot only eight 3-pointers. But they made five. Two of these belonged to Haley Jones, continuing her postseason emergence as 3-point shooter.
During the regular season, Jones attempted only nine 3s, making one. After not trying a shot from behind the arc in Stanford’s opening round game against Utah Valley, she has fired nine 3s in the following four games, hitting five of them for 55.6 percent.
Jones finding comfort behind the arc is exemplary of her team’s overall comfort with the deep ball. Jones’s play also exemplifies how the 3-pointer leads to other efficient scoring avenues for the Cardinal. In Jones’ case, her becoming (somewhat of) a threat from long range requires opponents to play her closer on the perimeter, which then opens up driving and cutting lanes that she expertly can exploit.
Comfort through adversity
It has not been totally smooth sailing for Stanford in San Antonio. But a season of challenges appears to have helped the Cardinal maintain their calm and composure through any struggles.
As the stakes of each subsequent tournament game increase, the self-imposed pressure has, understandably, mounted on Kiana Williams, as capping her college career by winning a national championship in her hometown is a beautiful, yet still burdensome, prospect. Williams, however, successfully has shaken off uneven play to remain Stanford’s steadying force down the stretch down in the Elite Eight and Final Four, draining big shots in big moments against Louisville and South Carolina.
Lexie Hull also has provided a model of how to thrive through adversity. Like Williams, Hull has struggled to find her shot in the tournament’s latter rounds. She nevertheless has been an integral part of the Cardinal’s wins, largely because of her absolutely relentless rebounding. Hull followed up a nine-board performance against Louisville with 13 against South Carolina, not only helping Stanford compete on the glass with the nation’s top rebounding team but also securing second-chance opportunities that proved vital in a one-point win.
Finding similar ways to win on the margins will be critical if Cardinal are to capture the national championship. Twice this season, Stanford took care of business against Arizona. These results seem to suggest that Stanford should rather comfortably cruise to a title. Yet, beating a team for the third time in a season is always a tall task, especially if the team is peaking as the Wildcats are.
Yet, Stanford’s extensive experience finding comfort in adversity, both on and off the court, indicates that they have the intangible ingredients necessary to win a national title.