Back in February, after the Stanford Cardinal had completed a Los Angeles weekend sweep of UCLA and USC by a combined 54 points — without Pac-12 player of the year Haley Jones — coach Tara VanDerveer was predictably measured about where her team stood a month ahead of the NCAA Tournament.
“Really proud of how our team has been battling,” VanDerveer said. “But I think we need to really, we’re still working on really putting together 40 minutes.”
The Cardinal had just won their ninth and tenth straight games in a streak that has extended to 24 consecutive victories, but at Stanford, the aim is always being as good as possible. 40 quality minutes is a goal that the team has struggled with over the course of the regular season — a fourth-quarter comeback in Eugene erased what had been a poor game to date against Oregon; a bad second quarter against Kansas had VanDerveer wondering if her team would even get past the first weekend of the tournament; and extended second-half scoreless stretches against Maryland and Texas put a trip to the Final Four in jeopardy.
And yet, the Cardinal are back in the national semifinals, with a chance to become the fourth school in Division I history to repeat as champions, joining USC, Tennessee, and their Final Four opponent UConn.
That Stanford got here without being at its best is a testament to the depth of talent that exists on this roster. The Cardinal are led by Jones and Cameron Brink, the Pac-12 player of the year and defensive player of the year, respectively, but there are waves of reinforcements behind them.
Jones, the reigning Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four, is the point forward, leading the team in assists at 4.8 per 40 minutes, which places her in the 94th percentile of Division I players. She’s the operator out of the high post, and Brink and Lexie Hull both called Jones one of the best passers they have ever played with after Stanford’s win over Texas.
Lacie Hull has also spent this entire season honing her point guard skills after the graduation of Kiana Williams. She’s the secondary ball handler who also played 40 minutes against the Longhorns in the Elite Eight and had three turnovers compared to four assists, a better ratio than Jones managed against Texas’ defense.
When it comes to scoring, Brink leads the team, while Jones and Lexie Hull are less than a point per game behind. Hannah Jump and Fran Belibi have also been the highest scorers in eight different games, half of those as bench players. Jump and the Hulls all shoot at least 40 percent on 3-pointers while Belibi and Brink make at least 58 percent of their twos. There are no easy answers for opposing defenses against this top-five offense.
It’s on the defensive end where Stanford shines even brighter. Buoyed by Brink’s rim protection, opponents shoot 36 percent on twos. They may shoot respectably on threes — 31.9 percent is about average nationally — but with the Cardinal switching on the perimeter, those long-range opportunities are few and far between. Anna Wilson was the co-Pac-12 defensive player of the year in 2020-21 and gets first dibs as a perimeter stopper. But she has Lexie and Lacie Hull ready to chip in, just as Brink has Belibi, Ashten Prechtel, and Kiki Iriafen off the bench for frontcourt help.
Having a deep team gives Stanford theoretical advantages when it comes to foul trouble, minutes management, and targeting matchups. But it takes a certain level of team connectivity for individuals to be okay with sitting out and letting someone else pick up the slack.
Last year, the Cardinal were almost forced to come together on the road, as Covid-19 restrictions forced the team to spend nine weeks away from their home in Palo Alto. It took more effort to generate that togetherness under more traditional circumstances this season.
“The chemistry, the camaraderie is really special on this team and it takes a lot of work,” VanDerveer said during conference play. “To make the sacrifices that our players make is not easy.”
“I think that’s something special about Stanford,” Lexie Hull said. “Yes, last year definitely was accentuated. But I think that as a culture, we are just very close and spend time with each other on and off the court. So I think that it is something that carried over from last year, but I think it’s also something that’s present every year.”
It’s a trait that was most clearly visible when the Cardinal busted out the electric slide after advancing to the Final Four, something that VanDerveer said helped loosen up the team and show that she and the coaches had confidence in them to get the job done.
Almost forgot the best part of last night’s Stanford celebration: the postgame electric slide conducted by head choreographer Haley Jones. HC Tara VanDerveer has some moves pic.twitter.com/CoDQI8r5wl— Andrew Quinn (@andrewquinny) March 28, 2022
Stanford got the job done last year by the skin of its teeth, squeaking out one-point wins in each of its last two games when the opposing team missed a buzzer-beater. Maybe that experience with clutch games is an asset, showing that the Cardinal are never fazed no matter the time and score situation. Maybe it’s a reminder that Stanford’s 40-minute problem isn’t isolated to this particular season.
Or maybe it’s a warning to the rest of the field that the Cardinal haven’t been at their best for a full game and they’re still positioned to capture that championship trophy once more. When the margins are this slim, a team with Stanford’s depth feels as equipped as any to cut down the nets.