Stanford’s women’s basketball team has won the Pac-12 conference or at least a share of it for the past 14 years. Until this season.
Head coach Tara VanDerveer isn’t worried about rankings or records at this point. She is focused on the Cardinal playing more games. Come tournament time, only the first game is guaranteed. VanDerveer explained that the “I got next” mentality of pick-up basketball doesn’t exist in the post-season.
“We’ve had a lot of really good highs and we’ve learned from our lows. At this point the record is basically irrelevant,” VanDerveer said. “The whole key is our energy. We know we can beat anybody and we know we can lose to anybody.”
It’s no longer about wins and losses or where you stand in the polls. It’s all about advancing, and VanDerveer said that her team this year is the best suited line-up to tournament style play than in years past due to greater depth on the bench.
“We’ve started a lot of different players and we have confidence in whoever goes in,” VanDerveer said. “This team is more geared toward tournament play, with three games in three days, than any other team we’ve had here in a while. We can play more people.”
No. 19 Stanford (21-9, 13-5) heads to Seattle for the Pac-12 tournament as the No. 3 seed. Prior to this season, the Cardinal had been the top seed in every iteration of the incident since its inception in 2002 and have won 10 of the 13 titles. Last year was also the first in which Stanford did not appear in the tournament final, after the team lost in the tournament semifinal to USC.
VanDerveer and the Cardinal fared as well as they could this season considering their personnel and having to implement and learn a new system offense. Stanford has proven that they could adapt to the intricacies of a more guard-oriented, fast-paced, pick-and-roll offense. It’s just a matter of putting the pieces together.
As Tammy Blackburn, Pac-12 women’s basketball analyst, said, Stanford is still Stanford. Year in and year out, they are well coached and have the players with the pride, drive and determination to succeed.
This season, four players earned conference honors. Senior point guard Amber Orrange, second leading scorer (12.9 ppg) and leader in assists (3.5 apg) and steals (1.7 spg), was named to both the All-Pac-12 squad and the Pac-12 All-Defensive Team. Sophomore guard Lili Thompson, the Card’s leading scorer (13.6 ppg), earned her first All-Pac-12 nod. Senior Bonnie Samuelson received All-Pac-12 Honorable Mention after leading the team in 3-point shooting. And freshman forward Kaylee Johnson earned a spot on the Pac-12 All-Freshman Team with her rebounding performance, leading the team with 10 rpg.
Blackburn also reasoned that bumps and bruises are to be expected from a team that didn’t have a clear-cut solution to losing Chiney Ogwumike ‘14. However, with its change in offense and playing style, Stanford has proven that it was prepared to change.
It has not been a rebuilding year for the Cardinal, but rather a year to adapt and update its identity as a program based on the shift in player skills. Stanford didn’t lose all, or even the majority, of its starters or all points and rebounding.
The Card may have lost Ogwumike, but Orrange and Thompson returned ready to carry the team and pick up the slack on offense. The Card proved against Oregon State, and UConn earlier in the season, that they have the skills necessary to succeed and compete at a high level.
Despite neither Stanford nor Cal finishing at the top of the Pac-12, it would be remiss to assume that the conference momentum and dominance is moving away from the Bay Area schools. Due to greater coaching, recruiting and player development, the talent of the Pac-12 is not shifting, but is expanding.
If Stanford advances past the quarterfinals (Stanford received a first-round bye), they will face Arizona State, which swept Stanford in conference play. If they execute in rebounding and in transition, the Cardinal have a good chance to beat ASU. Stanford also has to be prepared to handle ASU’s pressure and get back in transition on defense, as ASU likes to push the pace of the game.
“You have to be the type of team and type of individual that no matter what you play hard; that you rebound, that you play defense, you are energetic on the bench and are positive and excited,” VanDerveer said.
Freshman Brittany McPhee, who came off of the bench in the win against Cal and has performed at a consistently high level, will be of particular value to the Card with the absence of starting guard Karlie Samuelson. The sophomore broke her finger against Oregon State last week and isn’t expected to return for this weekend.
Elder sister Bonnie Samuelson has been particularly effective at the stretch-four position. Combining her 3-point shooting and her ability to drive the baseline with the two-guard play of Orrange and Thompson will be crucial to the Cardinal’s success. The guard duo not only accounts for the brunt of the Card’s scoring but also makes key plays that aren’t necessarily measurable on a stat sheet.
Add in forwards Kaylee Johnson and Erica McCall underneath the basket and the Cardinal have the individual pieces to succeed; it’s just a matter of putting them together and playing aggressive basketball for 40 minutes.
Blackburn, who called the Oregon State-Stanford game for Pac-12 Networks, said it was one of the best, most clean, competitive games the Cardinal have played this year and that if they can replicate that in the tournament, they will experience success. She noted that Cardinal players are smart players that can make plays but need to be more physical and display greater grit and determination.
The Card play their only guaranteed game of the Pac-12 tournament in Seattle on Friday at 2 p.m. against the winner of UCLA and Arizona.