After the best non-conference record since the 2013-2014 season, the No. 6 ranked Stanford women’s basketball team (12-1, 2-0 Pac-12) opened conference play with consecutive wins over their Southern California neighbors in Maples Pavilion. On Friday night, the Cardinal beat USC (10-3, 0-2 Pac-12) by a score of 72-64 before coming back from two double-digit deficits against UCLA (9-6, 2-1 Pac-12) to win 86-80 Sunday afternoon.
Between the two contests, one thing is clear: Pac-12 women’s basketball is for real. “There’s not a bad team,” said head coach Tara VanDerveer. “Like maybe in the old days you could say, ‘Ahh, we don’t have to worry about this team, we’ll be up by 30 at halftime,’ but those days are over. Everyone says, ‘Oh, isn’t it great? I’m like, ‘Uh, not so sure.’ It’s great, so we’ll have our work cut out for us every game.”
On Friday, sophomore point guard Kiana Williams scored 9 of her team-high 22 points in the third quarter on 3-5 shooting from beyond the arc to navigate a two point halftime deficit and put distance between the Cardinal and the Trojans. That came after a first half in which Stanford was two of twelve from deep while turning over the ball nine times.
“Our shot selection wasn’t great early on so [VanDerveer] told us to get to the paint,” said Williams. “So that’s what we were doing. They were running us off the three-point line.”
“They are an aggressive, physical team and I thought we responded well,” said VanDerveer. “They make it tough. We had a much better second half. We spread the floor better and got into transition.”
Senior forward Alanna Smith added 19 points and 11 rebounds as the Cardinal improved to 30-3 in Pac-12 openers. “Gritty, we play through anything,” Smith said. “It’s a word we like to use to describe ourselves. We don’t have to play pretty to win.”
Minyon Moore led the Trojans with 13 points and four assists while adding five rebounds. Her sister Mariya Moore paced the Women of Troy with six rebounds, but her five points came on two of 12 shooting including one of nine from beyond the arc. Kayla Overbeck contributed 10 points on an efficient four of five shooting from the field. “The kids played hard,” said USC coach Mark Trakh. “We played the No. 6 team in the country and I might have a bias but Tara is the best coach in the country.”
Freshman forward Lacie Hull struggled in the first half, missing all four of her shots, but turned it around in the second half to score seven, sink a key three-pointer, and take a steal straight to the rim for an easy two. “Lacie had a great second half,” said VanDerveer. “She really got things going with that steal.”
After junior forward Nadia Fingall left the game for the second time with what would later be announced as a season-ending ACL tear in her left knee, the Cardinal were forced to turn to their bench. “That’s something that’s great about our team.” said Smith. “We can rely on the players who come off the bench.”
Stanford also worked in a zone defense, something atypical for a VanDerveer led squad. “We’ve been working on it more. I think we wanted to change things up,” explained the coach. “With the analytics we do, certain teams play worse against the zone.”
Holding the Trojans to just 64 points, Stanford’s defense secured their victory.
But on Sunday, it was the zone defense of UCLA that was causing fits for the Stanford offense. The Bruins built up an eight point halftime lead outscoring the Cardinal 20-10 in the paint and shooting an absurd seven of nine from three point range.
“It had to be one of those games where we had to get punched in the face before we started fighting,” said VanDerveer. “Honestly, we can’t play that way. We have to come out of the gates better.”
Junior shooting guard Dijonai Carrington carried the team in the first half, scoring 21 of the Cardinal’s 38 points and tacking on five rebounds. No other Cardinal was in double digits scoring as Williams was stuck at eight and the trio of Hull, Smith, and sophomore forward Alyssa Jerome all had three. Smith was shooting a paltry one of seven from the floor, but her teammates were never worried. “I know Alanna’s shot is going to fall at some point, no one can guard her,” said Carrington. “I know Kiana’s shot is going to fall, I’m not worried about that.”
“Until that starts happening,” said Carrington, “I felt like someone else needed to step up.” Carrington would add nine more points and four more rebounds in the second half to come within three points of her career high, set earlier this season against Tennessee.
With the Stanford bench unable to score, the Cardinal’s big three saw additional playing time. Carrington played 39 minutes, while both Smith and Williams played the full forty. “Playing a full game is very tiring,” said Smith, “but when you’re in a game situation you don’t really realize it. You just do what you have to do.”
The shots eventually did begin to fall for both Smith and Williams, who each completed a double doubles. The Australian senior scored 24 and brought down eleven boards and the sophomore point guard put up 21 to go along with ten assists.
“When you have every one of your teammates telling you to keep shooting, it’s hard not to,” said Smith. Despite shooting 1-7 in the first half, Smith finished 8-18.
Jerome, in her second career start, shot a perfect 2-2, sinking both three point attempts for six points. Her first shot was the first bucket of the game for the Cardinal, while her second came with a minute remaining after the Bruins closed the margin to three.
Although the Bruins blew two double-digit leads, including the largest lead of the game at twelve, head coach Cori Close was happy with her team. “What I love about this team is they’re not afraid to be challenged,” said Close. “They have stayed focused on adjusting and getting better from every experience.”
Despite the many injuries hampering Stanford’s depth, the Cardinal were pleased to welcome back freshman forward Lexie Hull, who missed the past nine games after starting the first three. “Both twins have really good instincts,” said VanDerveer. “They focus real hard, and I think they’ll help us down the stretch.”
When asked about what the team can do to improve, VanDerveer noted, “Let’s play defense and rebound because that can be there every night.” Stanford’s next opportunity will come at Arizona State (11-3, 2-1 Pac-12) on Friday.
Contact Daniel Martinez-Krams at danielmk ‘at’ stanford.edu