By Quinn Barry
A thrilling 74-69 victory over Cal (17-9, 8-7 Pac-12) has vaunted No. 14 Stanford women’s basketball (19-8, 13-2) into first place in the conference after a rocky start to the year.
The Cardinal usually win games on the strength of their veterans, such as seniors Brittany McPhee and Kaylee Johnson. However, a freshman stepped up to carry the offensive load against Cal.
Freshman Kiana Williams’ 26 points tied a single game-high for a Pac-12 rookie this season. She was lights out in the first half, hitting her first four threes and going 2-2 from the free throw line. Coach Vanderveer succinctly reflected on the 5-foot-8 Texan’s performance: “[Williams] is the freshman of the year in the Pac-12.”
Stanford took control in the first quarter against the Bears, chalking up 22 points to the visitors 13. But they gave way in the second quarter. Point guard Asha Thomas’s ability to penetrate the paint at will opened up space for Bear shooters behind the arc and their bigs in the paint. Outscored 22-15 in the 2nd quarter, the Cardinal had no answer for the twin tower combination of 6-foot-2 Mikayla Cowling (14 points, three rebounds, five assists) and 6-foot-4 CJ West (nine points, seven rebounds).
However, Shannon Coffee, who had played just 48 minutes all year, came out to nail a three-pointer as the buzzer sounded. Card 37, Bears 35 at half.
“It was a pretty big shot to the gut,” stated a frustrated Cal head coach Lindsey Gottlieb in the post-game press conference. “To put someone in who wasn’t really on your scouting report. She’s a big kid, you don’t expect her to hit a three.”
Cal’s strategy in this contest was simple: run the offense through Thomas, use their size to dominate the boards and pain Stanford from the perimeter. Midway through the third, shooting 42 percent from deep (5-12) and out-bounding the Cardinal by two, the plan seemed to be working.
But, as she usually does, Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer found the anecdote to the Cardinal weakness. A healthy dose of Nadia Fingall, the freshman averaging just 3.6 points per game on the season, froze the Bears on both ends of the floor. Midway through the third, Coach VanDerveer inserted Fingall into the game just as Cal subbed out their two biggest players, Cowling and West. Left as the tallest player on the court, Fingall was a dominating presence, grabbing six boards and notching 10 points (4-6 from the field). During one play, after Cardinal senior scoring leader Brittany McPhee missed a three from the top of the key, Fingall shuffled toward the center of the paint, hauled in a tough offensive board and threw it up for an and-one. She promptly completed the three-point play.
The sophomore also demonstrated her poise as a jump shooter. When the Cal defense gave her ample space on the perimeter in deference to her driving ability, the Florida native took advantage and drained an open left-corner three. The following play, though, was the real basketball art in motion. First, her tight defense helped force a steal. Then, receiving the rock on the break, she sidestepped her defender, powered over a screen and splashed a beautiful jumper from above the elbow with two seconds left in the third quarter. The Cardinal ended the period leading 57-49.
Fingall’s strong performance earned praise from Coach Vanderveer, “I loved her [offensive] boards, [her] big three in the corner. [She] helps stretch the defense for us [and] gives us confidence off the bench.”
The Cardinal regulars stepped up in clutch time to seal this victory for Stanford.
While McPhee shot just 5-19 from the field, the lead guard managed to manufacture 16 points and constantly pushed the pace against a slower Cal squad. Moreover, junior Marta Sniezek, who barely looked at the basket (0-0, zero points), calmed the Stanford offense with six of the team’s 15 assists.
The Bears crept back into the game in the fourth, coming as close as four with 17 seconds remaining. Ultimately, though, a composed Stanford women’s squad refused to crack. On the backs of their strong free throw shooting (16-21 on the game), Stanford sent the Bears home winless for the sixth straight Stanford-Cal meeting. Stanford now holds a 69-19 all-time advantage in the ladies’ hoops rivalry.
The Cardinal will go for the season sweep against Cal this Saturday at 2:30 p.m. at the Haas Pavilion .
Coach Gottlieb, for one, cannot wait to leave Palo Alto. “We did not feel they were invincible here. We were not intimidated.”
“But I would rather be playing at Haas on Saturday than here again.”
Contact Quinn Barry at qmbarry ‘at’ stanford.edu.