In its most challenging game since taking on UConn, the No. 4 Stanford women’s basketball team will play one of the nation’s most formidable teams, No. 1 Notre Dame, on Friday evening with a spot in the Elite Eight on the line.
The matchup marks only the third time the teams have met but the first time they will play against each other in the NCAA tournament.
Stanford comes into this Sweet 16 matchup off of a 86-76 win against No. 5 Oklahoma. Despite an uncharacteristically inconsistent season, the Cardinal have been playing some solid basketball as of late. In late February, Stanford upset then-No. 7 Oregon State, which won the Pac-12 regular season title. Despite next losing to unranked Oregon, the team responded by winning its 11th Pac-12 tournament title. It may not have necessarily played its best basketball during the tournament, but it nonetheless did what it needed to do to beat three talented teams (UCLA, Arizona State and Cal) and win the championship.
“I think we kind of have the sort of season that talks a lot about grit a lot, and it’s just — all those games have really kind of prepared us for this time of year,” said senior Bonnie Samuelson.
In addition, despite being down at halftime in its first two NCAA tournament games, Stanford came through in the second half of each of those games and won by decent margins. In these two games, the Cardinal had four players (sophomore Lili Thompson, Samuelson, senior Amber Orrange and senior forward Taylor Greenfield) average double figures, as the team shot 51.6 percent from the floor, 42.9 percent from deep and held CSUN and Oklahoma to a combined 37.6 percent shooting and 25.5 percent on 3-pointers.
But to beat Notre Dame, Stanford will have to play its best basketball of the season.
After winning the ACC — in fact, only losing one conference game the entire season — the Fighting Irish (33-2, 15-1 ACC) beat No. 16 Montana and No. 9 DePaul in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament. The program has been incredibly successful in the past few years: Notre Dame has been in the Final Four every year since the 2010-11 season and has been runner-up three times. Besides its conference loss to Miami — arguably a fluke — the Irish have only lost to UConn, which Stanford upset at the beginning of the season.
Notre Dame boasts exceptional guard talent as well as strong post play. Junior guard Jewell Loyd, ESPNW National Player of the Year, leads the team with 20.1 points per game. Despite their youth, freshman Brianna Turner and sophomore Taya Reimer dominate inside the paint, both averaging double digit points as well as 7.8 and 6.0 rebounds per game, respectively. Point guard Lindsay Allen (9.9 ppg) is tough to defend, while guard Michaela Mabrey has a deadly 3-point shot that most recently helped the Irish beat DePaul.
“They pass the ball, they move the ball really well, they play very up-tempo. They’re very skilled players. I think they have very high offensive efficiency, very unselfish, they work at both ends of the floor,” said head coach Tara VanDerveer. “Quite honestly, they really don’t have any weaknesses.”
“They are really fast and a physical team, so keeping up with their speed is going to be different,” added sophomore forward Erica McCall.
Although Notre Dame’s talent is undisputed, Stanford has the working pieces that could make Friday’s matchup a good game or even an upset.
Throughout the season, different players have stepped up to lead the Cardinal to victory. While Notre Dame will focus on stopping Orrange and Thompson, Stanford has many other weapons: Samuelson from 3-point range, Roberson and freshman guard Brittany McPhee off the drive; McCall in the paint and freshman forward Kaylee Johnson for rebounding; and perhaps most surprising has been the emergence of Greenfield, who before the Pac-12 tournament averaged 3.7 points per game but in the Pac-12 and NCAA tournaments has averaged 12.8.
To beat the Irish, Stanford must produce more than a one or two woman show. The team must put forth a multi-faceted, well-balanced effort, particularly one in which multiple players score double-digit points.
Stanford struggled against Oklahoma’s aggressive defense and committed 12 turnovers in the first half of the second-round matchup. If the team faces similar defensive pressure from the Irish, the Cardinal must be patient, take care of the ball, and try to drive to the hoop and draw the foul.
Limiting the impact of Loyd may be difficult; even in Notre Dame’s two losses, she still scored 25-plus points. Perhaps the best defensive strategy for Stanford would be to cover Loyd tightly but focus more on defending the paint or the 3-point shot, such as by making sure Turner, Reimer, Mabrey and any other 3-point threats struggle to score.
Perhaps most importantly, the Cardinal must play a full 40 minutes of basketball. The team often has slow starts and has been down 14 times at half this season. In particular, five times the Cardinal has erased double digit deficits to win games. But against as talented a team as Notre Dame, Stanford will likely struggle to mount a ferocious comeback. In simplest of terms, the Cardinal need to be on from the start.
Going into the game, however, the team will put rankings, seedings and expectations aside and instead focus on playing the best basketball it is capable of.
“We’re capable of playing with anybody in the country,” Orrange said, “but it’s up to us to play abilities, play to that level.”
Stanford will seek to upset No. 1 Notre Dame today at 7 p.m. The game will be aired on ESPN.
Contact Alexa Philippou at aphil723 ‘at’ stanford.edu.