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Season check-in: Breaking down recent struggles for women’s basketball

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After two of the better performances of the season, No. 5 Stanford (11-1, 0-0 Pac-12) regressed with a disappointing road hiccup in Austin and a too-close-for-comfort showing against UC Davis. The descent from blowout defeats of a quality Ohio State side and the pantheon that is No. 22 Tennessee to shaky outings against No. 25 Texas and unranked UC Davis exposed some glaring weaknesses.  

“I think other teams will look and say, ‘Texas did this,’” said Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer following the comeback win over Davis. “They will try to watch and say, ‘Well, what can we do that Texas did?’”

If opposing teams scout those two games, then Stanford will need to self-scout them as well. So that is what is on tap here. 

Board Woman

There are 34 teams above Stanford in rebound margin despite its 13th-best rebounds per game. That incongruence could not have been more apparent than for the six quarters from the start of the Texas game through halftime against UC Davis. The Longhorns were up six for the game in rebound margin and the Aggies up seven at halftime. 

The oddest part about the poor two-game stretch is that it followed an impressive showing against Tennessee. The Lady Vols lead the nation in rebounding margin, averaging 16.3 more rebounds per game than their opponents, but were outdone on the glass by six in Maples Pavilion. That took a massive effort from freshman forward Ashten Prechtel, who secured eight boards and sophomore guard Lexie Hull, who had nine. 

Hull leads the team in rebounds, while Prechtel and fellow freshman Fran Belibi are a close second and third. In per-minute averages, Belibi and Prechtel are head and shoulders above the rest — the only competition comes from DiJonai Carrington, who has missed the past seven contests with a knee injury. Of course, Belibi and, especially, Prechtel are head and shoulders above the rest. Belibi plays much bigger than her 6’1″ frame, and few teams have the height to match up with the 6’5″ Prechtel. 

One of those teams was Texas, and the 6’5″ Charli Collier came away with 20 points and 19 rebounds and the 6’0″ Jada Underwood cleaned up for seven offensive rebounds. The next game, the Aggies’ Cierra Hall came down with five offensive boards.

“Cierra Hall probably watched Underwood do it and she’s gonna say, ‘I’m going to do it now,’” VanDerveer said. “One of the things that Davis did was they got on the O-boards more so than I’ve seen.”

“We still didn’t box out as well as we could have, so [Davis is] getting too many O-Boards,” Jones said. 

On its roster, Stanford does not list a single player at center, which is generally a non-issue in the era of positionless basketball, but becomes an issue when the opponent owns the offensive glass. In those situations, Stanford will need Belibi and Prechtel to emerge and prevent the next Underwood copycat. 

Beyond the Arc

Stanford’s recent woes have extended to the perimeter. A story all season has been 3-point defense. Despite ranking as the ninth-best field goal defense in the sport, the Cardinal are 119th out of 349 teams in 3-point defense. Davis went 10-for-20 from range. California Baptist was 17-of-20. Texas and Mississippi State were also above 30%. 

“Davis might have said, ‘Hey, Cal Baptist knocked down 17 threes, we can do that too,’” VanDerveer said. 

Every team that has kept it close against Stanford has shot better than the Cardinal from beyond the arc, so the expectation will need to become that opposing game plans will feature their best 3-point shooter. Until the Cardinal prove they can stop it. 

Keeping up with Jones

Haley Jones owned the last game. The freshman guard led the Cardinal in each of points, rebounds and assists while tallying her first career double-double. When Stanford was finally able to pull away in the third quarter, it was on the strength of eight points from Jones. 

“Her next step will be getting a triple double,” VanDerveer said. “She’s very capable of that, she has great vision and she’s a very unselfish player.”

For Jones, the path from top-ranked recruit to first-year Stanford starter began with a camp at the age of eight, and was cemented in the locker room. As a coach’s kid, Jones would run around her parents’ practices growing up, where she accumulated basketball IQ and solidified her five-position versatility. Her high school learning came inside the walls of Archbishop Mitty, but since arriving on the Farm, Jones has learned on the court from junior Kiana Williams about the point guard position, junior Alyssa Jerome and senior Nadia Fingall about the post game and Carrington about wing play. 

“Wherever Tara puts me I have a different mentor at every position,” Jones said. 

“She is well beyond her years in terms of her understanding of the game, and she’s a very, very intelligent basketball player,” VanDerveer said. “The game slows down. She can see things. You’re not explaining 100 things to her. She can make those plays and those adjustments.”

Jones has averaged the third-most minutes on the team at just under 25 per game, partly due to the vacancy in the starting lineup left by Carrington. 

“It’s a great opportunity and I think Haley loves it,” VanDerveer said. “She’d rather play then sit. I think she likes me, but she doesn’t like sitting next to me. She wants to be out there”

The play of Jones will mean that the coaching staff will need to evaluate how the offense is run for the remainder of the season. Starting point guard Kiana Williams has attempted the second most field goals on the team with the second worst field goal percentage on the team. In the two most recent games, Williams hobbled to 4-for-16 in her home state and could not rebound, going 1-for-5 from the field against the Aggies. Unsurprisingly, Stanford struggled when she struggled. 

Although her ability as a facilitator is unquestionable — she owns a 43-25 turnover-to-assist ratio and only Anna Wilson has more assists per minute — Williams is 3.3% short of last year’s mark from the field and 8.8% shy of her previous 3-point percentage all while taking more than 10 shots per game. 

“We know she’s much more capable than what we’re seeing right now,” VanDerveer said. “It’s great when you can win without her playing well.”

With school out of session, the team has been staying in a hotel, where Jones and Williams have been rooming together. VanDerveer thinks Williams’s struggles can be solved by the junior getting her mojo back and joked with Jones about helping her roomie to find it.

Washingtons opens conference season

More often than not, the Conference of Champions is a misnomer in conjunction with the Pac-12. In women’s basketball, especially this season, the slogan is spot on. The Pac-12 has three teams in the top five of the AP poll, three undefeated teams and all 12 teams above .500.

“I’m just excited for Pac-12 play,” Jones said. “It’s the best conference in the nation.”

Stanford has never lost to Washington State. Ever. As far as Pac-12 openers go, Friday night is a tune-up. The Cougars’ six losses are the most in the conference, the scoring defense last and scoring offense in the bottom three. For the most part, Stanford can key in on Chanelle Molina, Jovana Subasic and Borislava Hristova and her third-best in the conference 18.5 points per game.

Washington, the Sunday opponent, is a more formidable opponent. The Huskies downed their in-state rivals, have the most steals in the conference, and are top 20 in the country allowing just 54.2 points per game. Compared to Washington State, Washington has more balanced scoring threats, but the offense flows from Amber Melgoza. From 3-point range, Missy Peterson and Khayla Rooks can be legitimate threats, though Rooks is mired in and 0-for-6 slump over the past two games. 

Last season, neither of the two contests against either squad were particularly close, including a two-game home sweep that propelled Tara VanDerveer to 900 wins with Stanford. As far as rebound margin this year, Washington is 10th and Washington State last in the Pac-12, so neither team will provide the test VanDerveer may want her team to face. The only school that gets to the line less than Washington in the conference is Washington State, so Stanford may benefit from an advantage at the charity stripe as well.

Nine away games and nine home games remain on Stanford’s itinerary. So far, in the one true road game in an opponent’s home arena, Stanford struggled mightily and lost. Inside of Maples Pavilion and at neutral sites, the Cardinal have been unblemished. If everything floats in Stanford’s favor, the postseason will either take place in a neutral site, Las Vegas for the Pac-12 tournament, in Maples for potential early-round tournament action or in the regional sites and New Orleans for later March Madness matchups. That fact is comforting for any fans worried about what they say in the one-game sample of true road games. 

Contact Daniel Martinez-Krams at danielmk ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Daniel Martinez-Krams '22 is a staff writer in the sports section covering football, women's soccer, women's basketball and baseball. He is originally from Berkeley, California. Contact him at danielmk ‘at’ stanford.edu.