By Sally Egan
There are a lot of things to like about the No. 3 women’s basketball team this season. The team is returning four starters from their Pac-12 title-winning 2018-19 roster. A strong freshman class from last year, led by guard twins Lacie Hull and Lexie Hull, now has a year of experience to work with. Only three seniors from last season graduated. Head coach Tara VanDerveer returns for a 34th season and remains as brilliant and well-regarded as ever. However, there is one looming, 6’4” remaining question. How will the team deal with the loss of WNBA first-round-pick Alanna Smith ’19?
Smith leaves the school ranked 11th all time in rebounds, eighth in games played and second in shots blocked. Last season, in particular, she put together one of the greatest individual seasons in Stanford women’s basketball history, finishing eighth in points, 12th in points per game, ninth in three-pointers and second in blocks. While the All-Pac-12 player will be missed, the women’s basketball team rarely seems to miss a beat, even when dealing with the loss of a player as great as Smith.
Junior guard Kiana Williams and senior guard DiJonai Carrington proved last season that there are players up to the task of replacing Smith. Both women averaged upwards of 14 points a game and grabbed at least 40 steals over the course of the season. They mark a strong foundation for this year’s team.
In addition to these two known stars, look for both Hull twins to continue rising in both production and minutes played. Lexie was third on the team in rebounds last season while Lacie led the team with 53 steals. There was a lot of hype surrounding the Spokane, Washington products and they did not disappoint.
Senior guard Anna Wilson and junior forward Maya Dodson both finished their seasons stronger than they started, with Dodson working her way into the starting line up by the end, and Wilson significantly improving her own production. If both players continue to build on last season, Stanford’s depth could be tough to beat. Additionally, senior forward Nadia Fingall will likely return from an ACL tear, giving her an opportunity to pick up where she left off from last season’s strong start. Fingall averaged 8.9 points in the first 12 games, before tearing her ACL against USC on Jan. 4.
The past week’s exhibition games against Beijing Normal and Team USA provided a glimpse into Stanford’s keys to success for the upcoming season. Despite the 80-95 loss to Team USA, Carrington and Williams continued their strong efforts from last season, with each contributing 17 points. In the 100-58 win over Beijing, though, new faces carried the team to victory. Freshman forward Ashten Prechtel started and contributed 12 points and fellow freshman forward Francesca Belibi led the team with 17 points. This infusion of strong youth provides hope not only for this season, but for the next few years. With completely different starting rosters, along with different point and minute leaders in both games, Stanford flexed the depth and balance they possess that could make them extremely dangerous this season.
The Cardinal will open the 2019-20 regular season against Eastern Washington on Tuesday night at Maples Pavilion. Stanford hasn’t taken on the Eagles since Nov. 24, 2004, when the Cardinal cruised to a 91-50 victory. The Eagles don’t have quite the same national championship aspirations as Stanford, but as the youthful team — with 11 underclassmen and only three upperclassmen — are likely to come out fast and with enthusiasm.
The key players to watch for are sophomore guard Grace Kirscher, who set the Eastern Washington record for most three pointers by a freshman, and junior guard Brittany Klaman, who dished a team-high 88 assists last year and is likely a leader of the team this season.
Stanford faces early non-conference tests when they host Gonzaga and Tennessee on Nov. 17 and Dec. 18, respectively. Last season, the Zags finished 29-5, and handed the Cardinal their first loss all season. This year, that defeat won’t be taken lightly as Stanford gets to play on its home turf while trying to put Gonzaga back in its place. On the flip side, last year’s game against the then-No. 9 Volunteers was a 95-85 Cardinal victory, as Tennessee suffered their first loss of the season. Tennessee will likely be good again, and they will come to Maples hungry for revenge. Additionally, on Dec. 22, Stanford travels to Austin to take on No. 15 Texas in their second to last non-conference game of the season.
Of course, many of the Pac-12 conference games promise to be exciting as well, particularly against No. 1 Oregon. Last season, Stanford was pummeled by the Ducks 48-88 early in the season, but then beat them 64-57 when it really mattered, in the Pac-12 Championship game. The Ducks aren’t likely to have forgotten that, and both matchups are likely to be highly anticipated for both teams. The Cardinal travels to Eugene early in the conference schedule, on Jan. 16, but then hosts the Ducks in Stanford’s final home game of the season on Feb. 24. Just three days later, the Cardinal will take on No. 7 Oregon State in what could be the toughest stretch of the season. Two other Pac-12 teams ranked in the AP preseason rankings are No. 11 UCLA and No. 20 Arizona State. Stanford will face each team once.
Tip off against Eastern Washington is at 7 p.m. on Tuesday night at Maples. The tip off will mark the start of what could be a very special season for the Cardinal.
Contact Sally Egan at egansj18 ‘at’ stanford.edu.