Stanford Daily | Triple Threat
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Triple Threat cover photo

Erica McCall, Karlie Samuelson and Briana Roberson together form the senior core of the Pac-12 winning Stanford women’s basketball team. (RYAN JAE/The Stanford Daily)

“I think of myself like a Draymond Green — [he] just goes out, does the dirty work, gets rebounds, blocks.” McCall says, smiling. “I admire his passion.”

“I’m number 44 because I like Jerry West,” says Samuelson.

“I am a huge fan of Damian Lillard because he is a scoring point guard,” says Roberson.

Imagine a franchise composed of a three-player core of scoring point guard Damian Lillard, combo guard Jerry West, and dominant power forward Draymond Green. The three seem wildly different in terms of personality and style, yet as it turns out, it’s the perfect symbiosis — at least for the Stanford women’s basketball team.

Despite starting their college career in the shadow of Chiney Ogwumike — an All-American forward from 2010 to 2014 and No. 1 pick in the 2014 WNBA Draft — Stanford’s current seniors emerged as team leaders by their junior year. In March, they carried Stanford to a Pac-12 conference title, as McCall and Samuelson averaged over 10 points per game while Roberson had a two-to-one turnover ratio.

All three of them grew up in basketball families and started to play in elementary school, with older siblings and fathers as their basketball mentors.

Both Samuelson and McCall started playing under their fathers, who coached them individually and pushed them to become better. Samuelson also used to shoot around with her sisters Bonnie and Katie Lou. Bonnie played for the Cardinal between 2011 and 2015 and Katie Lou is playing her second year at UConn.

“My dad would take me and my sisters to shoot all the time when we were younger and throughout high school,” Samuelson recalls. “We had to shoot every single day, and we hated it. But that’s why we are all good shooters, so I thank him for that.”

Just like Samuelson, McCall’s style of play — a dominant power forward on both ends of the floor — can be traced to her father’s coaching. Her older sister DeWanna Bonner, power forward for the Phoenix Mercury, developed alongside her.

“I started when I was four. My dad was one of my coaches [for a season],” McCall says. “Then I played for a club team. I was never the best one, always the last one to get off the bench. My dad told me to be the hardest worker and get rebounds, and that he’ll teach me the rest.”

Roberson’s inspiration was her older brother Kenni, who used to teach her ball-handling moves when she was little. Roberson still trains with him in the summer.

“My brother and I, we talk after every single game,” she says. “He has really been a strong influence in my basketball career.”

Basketball is a family affair for all three Stanford seniors. In committing to Stanford, they stepped from one basketball family into another. From their first moments together, the three women knew that they had found a new family in their classmates.

“We were here our freshman summer, and I already knew they were going to be my best friends,” Samuelson says. “We were staying in Governor’s Corner, and we had no idea where anything was. That’s how we got to know each other, by biking around and finding our way on campus.”

“My freshman year, there were a lot of different cliques. As my four years progressed, we all grew closer,” recalls McCall. “This is probably the closest team I have ever been on, a big sisterhood.”

Karlie Samuelson, Briana Roberson, Erica McCall, Family, Tara VanDerveer (BOB DREBIN/isiphotos.com)

The three seniors were honored with their basketball and blood families before the Cardinal’s final home game against Cal earlier this year. (BOB DREBIN/isiphotos.com)

Although the Cardinal were able to reach the Final Four of the NCAA tournament during their freshman season, the three seniors, along with the rest of the team, had to adapt to the new group dynamic as Stanford was left without an All-American player.

“Sophomore year, the team underwent some big changes,” Samuelson says. “We didn’t have an All-American, so you had to step yourself up.”

In the 2014-2015 season, the Cardinal worked hard to earn a 26-10 record. Their bid for another trip to the Final Four was halted when they fell to top-seeded Notre Dame in the Sweet 16. In Stanford’s last game, McCall notched 12 points, a promising ending to her tough year.

“Sophomore year, I struggled a lot, and my classmates were here for me and encouraged me,” says McCall. “Seeing us grow and go through the ups and the downs really just showed me how great friends we were.”

Indeed, with Chiney gone, the Cardinal were relying on McCall and other bigs to step up and lead the team. In spite of beginning the season as a starter, McCall lost her spot midway through the season that she finished coming off the bench for the Cardinal. This was the first time in eight years that Stanford had won less than 33 games, and McCall’s confidence was at a low.

“After my sophomore I just kept thinking, ‘How am I gonna do this?’ I was so discouraged,” she says.

After being named captain of the USA Basketball team and leading the country to a first place in the World University Games during her sophomore summer, McCall’s confidence was boosted and she was ready to start a new season.

“Knowing I could score down low against teams from all over the world was really helpful,” she says. “Suddenly I had this tremendous confidence.”

The seniors’ sophomore year also marked the final collegiate season of Bonnie Samuelson, Karlie’s sister, who left the team. Heading into their junior year, the three current seniors were poised to take over as team leaders. All three were named captains.

“This was the change for us,” Samuelson says. “This became our team.”

Their junior year, Stanford earned a 27-8 record and a 1,000th program win. After a heartbreaking loss to Washington in the Pac-12 quarterfinals, the Cardinal met Notre Dame again in the Sweet 16 of The Big Dance. McCall’s career-high 27 points led the way for the Cardinal, bolstered by an additional 20 points from Samuelson. As the junior class was beginning to truly catch fire, Stanford stunned Notre Dame but fell to Washington in the Elite Eight.

At the beginning of the 2016-17 season, the trio looked ahead toward a potentially rocky senior year. Would-be senior Lili Thompson had transferred to Notre Dame and Samuelson started the season injured. However, the bar remained high after the 2016 Elite Eight finish. The seniors in particular had their sights set on VanDerveer’s 1,000th career win. Maybe even another trip to the Final Four, which they hadn’t experienced since their freshman year.

The season did not disappoint, as the seniors led the team to a 28-5 record with only two conference losses. The Cardinal were able to overcome injuries and managed to stay healthy during most of the season.

On Feb. 3 against USC, the Cardinal completed one of their season goals as they were able to make VanDerveer the second NCAA women’s coach with more than 1,000 career wins.

“I am so happy that I was able to be on the team that got her the 1,000th win,” Roberson says. “It’s crazy to think how many dubs that is.”

“Being able to do that as a senior was crazy. That’s a goal that we kind of set for each other, to get that for her, so it was nice being able to do that,” McCall says.

Tara VanDerveer and the senior class. (CASEY VALENTINE/isiphotos.com)

Erica McCall, Karlie Samuelson and Briana Roberson dumped a bucket of confetti on their coach to celebrate Vanderveer’s 1,000th win. (CASEY VALENTINE/isiphotos.com)

After hitting the 1,000-win milestone, the Cardinal shifted focus to a Pac-12 championship during conference play. The Stanford squad ultimately fell short twice against Oregon State, both times by a mere three points.

Stanford was able to rebound and to take its 12th conference championship during the Pac-12 tournament. Once again, the seniors proved to be the Cardinal backbone, combing for almost half of the Cardinal’s points.

“Winning that Pac-12 tournament was great for all three of us. We have been through so much adversity in our four years here,” McCall says.

The Cardinal have participated in The Big Dance for three straight decades, and this year was no exception. The seniors had one last chance to play with their sisters and enjoy their final moments in the program they had changed over those four years.

“It’s kind of bittersweet,” Roberson added.

During the NCAA tournament, the senior class led their team to the Cardinal’s First Final four since 2014. The Cardinal notably upset Notre Dame in the Elite Eight, 76-75, after rallying from a 14 point deficit in the third quarter. Although all three seniors were a huge part of the comeback, McCall stole the show with a game-saving block as the clock expired.

McCall finished the season with 288 rebounds and 54 blocks while she averaged 14.6 points per game. Her teammates, who affectionately call her “Bird” (because her last name resembles a bird call), admire her enthusiasm on and off the court.

“Bird is the most caring person you could ever meet,” Samuelson says. “She never has a bad day, always positive. She lights up the whole room.”

“Bird is determined, spirited and entertaining,” adds Roberson.

Samuelson ended the year with a team-high 80 makes from the three, converting 47.6 percent of her attempts from downtown, supplementing her 12.7 points per game.

“Karlie loves the game. She’s the best shooter I have ever been the teammate of,” says McCall. “I mean, Bonnie is pretty good, but Karlie is my favorite,” she adds with a smile.

“Karlie is bubbly, bright and loyal,” added Roberson.

Roberson ended her season with 37 steals and 81 assists, averaging 6.7 points per game.

“Outside of the court she loves listening to music and vibing with her teammates,” adds McCall.

“Bri is probs one of the best listeners and best friends I have ever met,” says Samuelson. “She will listen to you and wants to be there for you. She is hilarious too. An awesome person to be around.”

McCall, Samuelson and Roberson. (RYAN JAE/The Stanford Daily)

“We were here our freshman summer, and I already knew they were going to be my best friends,” Samuelson says. (RYAN JAE/The Stanford Daily)

One of the aspects of the trio’s dynamic the stat sheet cannot measure is their leadership of the team. Throughout the season, the senior core motivated the team and pushed their teammates.

“Those three never get down,” junior Kaylee Johnson says. “Always first in the gym, last out.”

Looking ahead to next year, all three women intend to keep playing basketball. Roberson wishes to play a couple of years overseas before applying to law school. Samuelson is still hesitating between her many options: playing overseas or potentially coaching or physical therapy work. Likewise, McCall has no intention of giving up hoops. She will prepare for the WNBA Draft after graduating at the end of winter quarter.

“I’d love to play on my sister’s team,” McCall says. “My dad would be super excited for me to play with the Phoenix Mercury. Other than that, I’d love to play with Chiney again. She has always been a mentor to me. That’s in Connecticut. A little far, and a lot colder than I am used to.”

In their four years at Stanford, the three seniors have changed the basketball program, but they have also emerged as changed themselves, having “matured as young women,” according to VanDerveer. They have also established themselves as leaders of a basketball family both on and off the court.

“Their leadership skills have been the best,” VanDerveer says. “They’ve been really special seniors.”

With these three women gone next season, the Cardinal will need to rely on current juniors Kaylee Johnson and Brittany McPhee to fill the leadership vacuum. Both Johnson and McPhee intend to continue the positive influence McCall, Roberson and Samuelson had on the team.

“During senior night, it finally hit me: These three girls are not going to be on the team next year. I just realized how different it’s going to be,” says Johnson. “It made me really grateful for all the memories we shared and eager to work hard.”

“There is no one else that I wanted to work so hard for,” she adds.

Cardinal players agree that they need to follow the example of the three graduating seniors if the team’s legacy of success is to continue. Johnson and McPhee look to follow the core’s footstep as they embark on their final season on the team.

In Bird’s departing message to the incoming freshmen, she emphasizes passion — her inner Draymond Green.

“Play with passion,” she says. “There are a lot of days when basketball is tough. Always remember the little girl you were when you fell in love with the game of basketball.”

Contact Alexandre Bucquet at bucqueta ‘at’ stanford.edu.