Stanford’s 90-84 win over Notre Dame means so much more than how it appears on paper.
It marked the fourth-seeded Cardinal’s upset of not simply a one-seed, but a program that had been to four of the last five championship games, a squad that was expected to be one of the last two teams standing and that many considered had the best chance of challenging UConn in the Huskies’ quest for a fourth consecutive national title.
It was Stanford’s revenge against the Irish after a crushing 81-60 defeat in last year’s Sweet 16, a loss capping a season that some called the beginning of the “transition years” in the “post-Ogwumike era.”
It contributed to a day of stunning upsets for women’s college basketball: Seventh-seeded Washington beat third-seeded Kentucky, while fourth-seeded Syracuse took down another one seed, South Carolina.
Meanwhile, Stanford’s win affirmed the Pac-12’s status as an elite conference, as the Cardinal became the second of two Pac-12 teams to secure spots in the Elite 8, with another pair (UCLA and Oregon State) playing for spots in it on Saturday.
And the win proved that even with a team that wasn’t expected to go deep in the tournament against the nation’s very best, you can never underestimate head coach Tara VanDerveer, who, with the upset, led Stanford (27-7) to its 10th Elite 8 in the past 13 years.
“Our team felt confident. We didn’t have the pressure on us and we just wanted to have fun,” said forward Erica McCall, who led in scoring for both teams. “That was the biggest thing. Whether we were down or up, we were always having fun, and I think that let us play loose.
“After the game we were excited, but it wasn’t a big shocker. I think we’re showing the country that Pac-12 basketball is strong.”
Despite having the second-best field-goal defense in the nation coming into the game, Stanford couldn’t simply rely on that to beat the Irish: They would have to score, and that is exactly what they did to win the game.
Stanford’s offense, which had struggled with consistency over the season, looked arguably the strongest it has all year: The team shot 65 percent from the field in the first half and 56 percent on the night, and five players notched double-digit points.
The Cardinal’s offense was headlined by McCall, who dominated in the post and scored a career-high 27 points off 12-for-18 shooting. McCall’s six points in the first five minutes of the game would help establish a Cardinal lead that the team would hold for the rest of the game. For the rest of the first half, McCall won her one-on-one battle with Notre Dame’s star post, Brianna Turner, whom McCall held scoreless prior to halftime. McCall went into intermission with 19 points.
Complementing McCall’s stellar post play was one of the best performances of Kaylee Johnson’s young career. The sophomore’s double-double (17 points, 12 rebounds, not to mention 2 blocks) helped Stanford maintain its sizable lead over the Irish on both ends of the court.
Freshman Marta Sniezek came off the bench and played like a veteran, scoring 11 points and dishing out 4 assists. Her ability to facilitate the team’s ball movement at the point led to countless opportunities for the Cardinal on their big scoring night. The team boasted 22 assists overall.
“We’ve played against great competition all season long, but Notre Dame is just a phenomenal passing team,” VanDerveer said. “And I think our team watched them and said, well, we can do that too.”
The Cardinal were also potent from beyond the arc, with nearly 40 percent of their points coming from threes. Karlie Samuelson helped out the most from distance, scoring 15 of her 20 points from downtown, including the shot that effectively sealed the win.
With 1:56 to play, Notre Dame had reduced its deficit to three and was playing tough defense on the Cardinal. With the shot clock about to expire, Samuelson was forced to heave a three from 30 feet out and banked it in; for the remainder of the game, Stanford would maintain at least a four-point lead.
“It was a great three points to have and a good time to have it,” Samuelson said about her shot.
Stanford’s offense kept the team in the game whenever Notre Dame would put together a run. In the third quarter, the Irish closed within seven, but Stanford responded with a 7-0 run of its own to keep the Irish down by 10 going into the final quarter.
Early in the fourth period, the Irish pulled within six before Stanford brought its lead back up to 12. And when Notre Dame got as close as three points away from tying the game, Samuelson hit her clutch three to fend off the Irish for good.
“Great teams are going to make runs, and Notre Dame was making a run,” VanDerveer said about the play. “I think that that might have kind of been a burst-your-bubble three.”
Stanford’s 90 points were the second most points that Notre Dame had given up this season, behind 91 against UConn in its only loss prior to Friday. Since then, the Irish (33-2) had won 26 straight games.
Notre Dame is also not used to losing close games: The Irish came into the Sweet 16 game having won their last 27 games that had been decided by single digits or gone to overtime.
Stanford will next take on a familiar foe, fellow Pac-12 competitor Washington, with the winner earning a berth to the Final Four in Indianapolis. The two teams met twice this season, with Stanford beating Washington in the regular season and the Huskies upsetting Stanford in the first round of the Pac-12 tournament a few weeks ago. The Huskies advanced to the Elite 8 after stunning Kentucky earlier Friday evening.
Stanford will be playing Sunday morning with its 13th Final Four appearance at stake — something not many basketball fans would have predicted after an up-and-down season, including a near-loss to South Dakota State in the Second Round of the NCAA Tournament. But with Tara VanDerveer under helm, never count the Cardinal out.
“Most people talk about next year’s team, but you never know about next year,” VanDerveer said after the South Dakota State game. “So let’s enjoy this year.”
Contact Alexa Philippou at aphil723 ‘at’ stanford.edu.