“It’s a one-game season,” Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer said.
In her 33rd year at the helm, VanDerveer leads Stanford women’s basketball to its 32nd consecutive NCAA Tournament bid. “You want it for your players,” VanDerveer said. “It’s not about me.”
Although the drama of Selection Monday was lessened first by the automatic berth as a conference champion and then by the premature release of the bracket, Stanford (28-4, 15-3 Pac-12) was nonetheless excited to learn it would be seeded second in the Chicago Region, with a matchup against No. 15 UC Davis (25-6, 15-1 Big West) in the Round of 64.
“It was disappointing, but we’re not going to let it get any traction,” said VanDerveer of the early release of the bracket. “We’re focused on Davis.”
“Obviously it is disappointing, it’s a fun experience to have,” said senior forward Alanna Smith, a psychology major. “I’m sorry the freshmen had to miss out on it, but hopefully they’ll have more opportunities in the future.”
Smith was recently named the tenth Academic All-American in program history. A school record ten student-athletes were placed on one of the Pac-12’s all-academic teams.
Stanford will now have to rely on that entire roster as they approach must-win games. “We have a lot of different weapons,” VanDerveer said. “The confidence to play people is the most important thing.”
“Everyone on our team has stepped up,” Smith said. “We wouldn’t be where we are today without every person.”
As a top-sixteen seed nationally, the Cardinal will host first and second-round games in Maples Pavilion, where they have gone 13-1 this season. Stanford is 36-4 in NCAA Tournament games at Maples Pavilion, including its past sixteen.
In thirteen trips to the Final Four, Stanford has won two national championships. Six of those runs came from the No. 2 seed, which the program has now accomplished on twelve occasions. The Cardinal have gone 86-30 overall in the tournament during that time.
Although tournament berths have become the expectation for the women’s team, VanDerveer wanted to stress that the team was aware of its importance. The coach asked one of the team managers for the men’s team to “remind our team how excited our guys would be if they were in the NCAA tournament as the number-two seed.”
In order to advance past the the Chicago region, Stanford will need to overcome defending national champion Notre Dame (30-3, 14-2 ACC). “We’re in the bracket of the defending national champions,” VanDerveer said. “There’s a lot of hard work ahead.”
The other three No. 1 seeds are Baylor (31-1, 18-0 Big 12), Louisville (29-3, 14-2 ACC) and Mississippi State (30-2, 15-1 SEC). No. 2 seeded Oregon (29-4, 16-2 Pac-12), who Stanford defeated in the conference championship, is one of five other teams from the Pac-12 to reach the tournament.
“I want to congratulate the other Pac-12 schools,” VanDerveer said. “I wish them the best.”
The biggest surprise of the draw for VanDerveer was that despite the Pac-12 conference being the “most competitive,” the Pac-12 did not receive a one seed “whether it be ourselves or Oregon.” Oregon was one of two teams to defeat Mississippi State and Stanford was the only team to hand Baylor a loss.
Another surprise is that UConn (31-2, 16-0 AAC) will not be a No. 1 seed for the first time since 2006. In that span, the Huskies won six national championships.
VanDerveer will side opposite a familiar foe in UC Davis. Not only were the Aggies the season opener for the Cardinal, but their head coach, Jen Gross, is VanDerveer’s “tutor.”
For the third time, VanDerveer brought in Gross this past offseason to teach the Princeton offense. “I’ve always been really impressed with Davis and how they run their offense,” VanDerveer said.
Davis clinched a tournament berth with a comeback victory over Hawaii (15-16, 10-6 Big West) in the conference championship after finding themselves down 17 in the third quarter. “I was cheering for them, and I texted Jen when they won,” VanDerveer said. “I’m not excited about playing them, partly because I’ve been rooting for them all year.”
The Hall of Fame coach, however, was quick to note that in tournament season, it is “every woman for themself.”
The two squads have faced off 23 times, with the Cardinal coming out on top in thirteen. That is Stanford’s third worst winning percentage against any opponent with at least as many games played.
“We would watch film on them to see what we needed to do,” Smith said.
In the season opener, Stanford won 73-41 behind 16 points from Smith and 14 from sophomore guard Kiana Williams. The Aggies’ Morgan Bertsch, who averaged the fourth-most points per contest in the nation with 23.5, scored just 16 points against the Cardinal with five rebounds and six turnovers. Stanford out-rebounded the Aggies 50-25 while holding their opponents to 22.6 percent shooting.
In that game, freshman forward Lexie Hull played 27 minutes and scored 11 points. Hull, as well as the Cardinal’s other two freshmen, guard Jenna Brown and forward Lacie Hull, have played significant minutes throughout the season but are awaiting a new experience. Nevertheless, Smith believes the trio is ready for the challenge. “I think they get the idea that this part of the season is really special.”
Pointing to Stanford’s record-setting forty-point loss to Oregon earlier this season, followed by a win in the conference title game, VanDerveer said, “an early season win means nothing.”
Since that loss to the Ducks, the Cardinal have reeled off a nine-game winning streak on the way to the thirteenth conference title in program history. “This is the time of year when you want to be playing your best basketball,” Smith said. “You learn from the games that you have to squeak out.”
The victor between the Aggies and the Cardinal will move on to face the winner of the earlier matchup between No. 7 BYU (25-6, 15-3 WCC) and No. 10 Auburn (22-9, 9-7 SEC). VanDerveer said her strategy in tournaments is to “work ahead but not look ahead.
“We will do preparation for our bracket,” VanDerveer added.
Although it is finals week for Smith and her teammates, the senior has completed most of her finals, save a take-home. Nonetheless, the team will be hitting the books – and the film room. “There’s a lot of studying to do between now and Saturday,” VanDerveer said.
For the Cardinal, the Dance will begin on Saturday at 2:30 p.m. PT after the conclusion of the BYU-Auburn game.
Contact Daniel Martinez-Krams at danielmk ‘at’ stanford.edu.