“Revenge,” junior guard DiJonai Carrington said.
Two-seed No. 7 Stanford (28-4, 15-3 Pac-12) left Las Vegas with hardware and a net after a 64-57 victory over one-seed No. 6 Oregon (29-4, 16-2 Pac-12) in the Pac-12 Championship. After losing to the Ducks on the same stage last season, and a month to the day after an 88-48 defeat, the worst of head coach Tara VanDerveer’s career, Stanford came out on top for the program’s 13thchampionship in 18 opportunities.
Nevertheless, this one was special. “We have a great legacy and we’re really proud of it,” VanDerveer said. “This group worked really hard to get this.”
The Oregon loss had been hanging over the team as they fought to close out the regular season. “I think that was something that we had in our minds ever since we lost that game,” said senior forward Alanna Smith. “When you take a loss like that, you have no choice but to learn from it. We were happy we got to play Oregon today. We wanted another chance at them.
“You may get down, but you’ve always got your opportunity to fight back,” Smith added.
With the conference championship, Stanford clinched an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. Although it is almost certain Maples Pavilion will host the first two rounds, the Cardinal will await the March 18 selection show for the remainder of the bracket, including a chance to play the NCAA Regional in nearby Portland.
Smith earned Most Outstanding Player honors for the tournament while recording three straight double-doubles. In Sunday’s game, it was 20 points and 14 rebounds to go along with three assists and a steal.
“It’s just that little bit more special being my senior year,” Smith said.
Smith is joined in the senior class by center Shannon Coffee, a key to the semifinal win over Washington, and guard Marta Sniezek, who has not played this season due to injury. “I’m happy our seniors could end their Pac-12 play on a positive note,” sophomore guard Kiana Williams said.
Despite ranking first in the nation in three-point shooting (0.402) and third from the field (0.507), Oregon was held to 27.6 and 40.7 percent, respectively, on Sunday. “We won with our defense,” VanDerveer said. “We came in as the top-ranked defensive team in the Pac-12 and people locked in defensively.”
Carrington jumped out to a quick eight points and finished with 22. Carrington was a rebound shy of her second consecutive double-double, adding two assists and a key steal in the fourth quarter.
Following a layup to break a 51-point tie with three and a half minutes to play in the game, Carrington intercepted a pass and claimed the lead for good.
Stanford went on an 8-0 run to start the game, holding their opponents to 11 points in the quarter to maintain the distance. The staunch defense was capped off by a Smith closeout block on the final possession.
“We didn’t come out and we didn’t have any fire,” Oregon’s Sabrina Ionesco said. The Ducks’ leading scorer, Ionescu led her team with 27 points and 12 rebounds to earn her third straight all-tournament team honor. “They came out, and you could tell they really wanted to beat us. We were kind of on our heels the whole game. We fought back, but we didn’t fight back long enough or hard enough to win.”
Stanford’s physicality was apparent immediately, as the Cardinal led 12-2 after the first quarter. Expanding that margin throughout the game, Stanford finished 33-18 in the key stat.
At the half, Oregon trailed 33-24, with the point total representing a season low. “We hung our hat on defense,” Williams said. “They’re a great offensive team.”
Stanford turned the ball over just once in the first 20 minutes. A poor third quarter saw the Cardinal turn over the ball six times, as the Ducks won the period 18-8 and claimed their first lead of the night on an Ionescu free throw with 52 seconds remaining.
Smith and sophomore forward Maya Dodson missed large stretches of the subpar third quarter with injuries that took them to the locker room. After opening the half with a three, one of four on the night, Smith landed on an Oregon player while pulling down a rebound on the other end.
The Ducks went on a 17-3 run, broken up after the first 10 Oregon points by a Williams three to end nearly six scoreless minutes for the Cardinal. With the Ducks up by one and threatening, Smith sent Satou Sabally in the stands, ending what was an otherwise disappointing third quarter the same way she closed the first, with a block.
“Our defense was outstanding,” Smith said. “It was a whole team effort.”
Stanford also succeeded in its preparation. “We don’t win without going through the scouting report with [junior guard] Mikaela Brewer doing what she needs to do, or [sophomore guard] Estella [Moschkau], or anyone,” VanDerveer said.
The final period saw the Ducks take their largest lead of the night, of three points, with 5:37 remaining, but Stanford followed with a 16-3 run to cut down the nets. Smith, Williams and Carrington were the only Cardinal players to score in the quarter.
“I’m a little disappointed with our execution early in the fourth quarter,” Oregon coach Kelly Graves said. “This is the time we normally shine. It doesn’t derail our goals of doing well in the NCAA Tournament and going a long way. We feel bad now and hopefully will learn from this and go forward.”
Late in the quarter, with under a minute and a half to play, Williams hit a massive three to bring the lead up to six. “I had confidence,” Williams said. “My teammates have confidence in me. My coaching staff has confidence in me. Yeah, I just knocked it down.”
“She has ice in her veins,” Smith added.
Williams finished with 13 points, five rebounds and six assists while playing 40 minutes.
Stanford totaled eight blocks in the game between Smith’s three, Dodson’s four and Carrington’s one. Dodson scored just four points but added six rebounds and stifling defense. “Her presence in there and her running the floor gave us another alternative,” VanDerveer said.
Although junior guard Anna Wilson came into the game averaging 10.6 minutes per game, she played 27 in the championship after freshman forward Lacie Hull picked up two early fouls. “Anna’s defense was fantastic,” VanDerveer said. “She worked so hard and came up with so many big plays for us.”
Ruthy Hebard and Erin Boley were the only two Ducks players outside of Ionsecu to reach double figures, despite all five starters averaging at least ten points. Sabally, who averages 16.4 points per game, was held to just five on 2-12 shooting. “I thought Kate Paye, our associate head coach, had a great scouting report,” VanDerveer said.
Although Stanford anticipates the selection committee for their precise opponent, the team is confident it can win regardless. “[This game] shows we can play with anybody in the country,” Carrington said. “We can beat anybody in the country, and we’re coming for everyone.”