I picked the No. 8 seed Ole Miss Rebels to beat the No. 1 seed Stanford Cardinal in nearly all my brackets, including my main bracket. The Rebels achieved the feat on Sunday, winning 54-49 in Stanford to become the first team to knock off a No. 1 seed before the Sweet Sixteen since 2009.
I was a little nervous about my pick given Stanford’s talent on paper and the composure the program has shown throughout the years under Tara VanDerveer, including when its current two biggest stars, Haley Jones and Cameron Brink, helped it win the national championship in 2021. However, I didn’t expect Stanford to have that composure this year, because in the regular season, the Cardinal repeatedly demonstrated that they couldn’t take care of business against far inferior opponents:
- Jan. 8: only beat non-tournament team Cal (13-17, 4-14 Pac-12) by four
- Jan. 15: lost to eventual No. 8 seed USC by nine
- Jan. 27: only beat non-tournament team Oregon State (13-18, 4-14 Pac-12) by three
- Jan. 29: only beat non-tournament team Oregon (18-14, 7-11 Pac-12) by eight
- Feb. 5: lost to non-tournament team Washington (17-14, 7-11 Pac-12) by five
- Feb. 17: only beat eventual No. 8 seed USC by three
On paper, I think Jones and Brink comprise one of the best star duos in the country and Hannah Jump went from 3-point specialist to star this year while shooting a career-best 44.1 percent from beyond the arc. Plus, freshman Talana Lepolo came in and was a distributing wizard right away, and the Cardinal still had secret weapons in No. 1 Hoop Gurlz recruit Lauren Betts, Fran Belibi and Ashten Prechtel, with the latter two playing lesser roles than they had earlier in their careers.
With the talent Stanford had in 2021-22, I even picked them to win the national championship. But come tournament time, you need to perform under pressure, especially as the higher seed, and I just didn’t trust the Cardinal anymore.
This is not to take anything away from Ole Miss. I knew the Rebels took the undefeated No. 1 overall seed South Carolina Gamecocks to overtime. And they were incredibly impressive in the first round, defeating a Gonzaga team that was ranked very high in the AP Poll 71-48!
On Sunday, they held Stanford to 32.7 percent shooting from the field and 2-of-7 shooting from three. They were 5-of-11 from downtown themselves, outrebounded the Cardinal 44-39 and forced a whopping 21 turnovers. The game was truly won with those clutch free throws down the stretch. Madison Scott went 2-of-2 at the stripe with 18 seconds remaining to make it 51-49 and Marquesha Davis was also perfect at 15 ticks left to make it a two-possession game.
For a stretch in the fourth, it seemed like Jones was going to try to score on every Stanford possession and she was having some success simply driving straight through the Ole Miss defense. However, the Rebels’ defense on Jones was phenomenal on the final few possessions, including when they trapped her and the ball went out of bounds off her before a lengthy review.
The Rebels hadn’t been to the Sweet Sixteen since 2007. Even last year with Shakira Austin, when I picked them to the Sweet Sixteen, they suffered a disappointing first-round loss as a No. 7 seed. To come back the following season without the player who was credited with turning the program into a contender and go two rounds or more further is a phenomenal accomplishment.