This weekend, Nadia Fingall will be playing in her third and final Pac-12 tournament. Last year, an ACL tear in her left knee kept Fingall out of the final 24 games of the season, meaning she was on the sideline for the tournament during its first year in Las Vegas.
“A lesson I learned, last year especially, is that you can’t take any second for granted,” Fingall said. “Nobody expects to get hurt, and I definitely didn’t. It taught me a lot about myself.”
Fingall’s season-high performance came one day short of the one-year anniversary of her injury. On Jan. 4, 2019, she tore her ACL. On Jan. 3, 2020, she went for a season-high 20 points against Washington State.
Four years ago, Stanford beat Oregon State in the 2017 conference title game in Seattle, Washington, which propelled Fingall, the three other members of the freshman class and Stanford to Final Four of the NCAA tournament. Oregon, which Stanford bypassed in those semifinals, has gone from sixth in the conference to an undeniable first.
Now, Stanford (25-5, 14-4 Pac-12) is set to meet Oregon State (23-8, 11-8 Pac-12) in the quarterfinal, with Oregon looming on the other side of the bracket for a potential rematch of the championship game for a third time running. The Cardinal are seeded third partly because of a home upset to UCLA in which, Fingall says, her team did not come out of the locker room with intensity.
“Regardless of how it goes, it’s going to be a challenge,” Fingall said. “We all know that. We’re expecting that, and we’re preparing for that.
“It’s a dog-eat-dog conference. You have to be prepared to come out and play your best every night,” she continued. “Because if you don’t, whoever you’re playing against will take advantage.”
This year, Fingall’s classmate senior DiJonai Carrington will be the one watching from the sidelines. Between Carrington’s voice off the court and Fingall’s on it, Stanford has two leaders who are embodying the focus head coach Tara VanDerveer said the team needs to succeed this weekend.
Keys to Vegas
For spurts this season, Stanford has blown teams out of the water but has rarely put it together for a full 40 minutes. So what does Stanford look like when it is playing its best basketball?
“What does it look like?” VanDerveer said. “We’re taking care of the ball. We’re rebounding, and people are talking and being really aggressive.”
In the season-closing road trip to Arizona, No. 7 Stanford (25-5, 14-4) twice committed double-digit turnovers, even venturing to a season-high 22 in a 73-72 overtime loss to the Wildcats. Due to that defeat, Stanford tied with UCLA for second in the regular-season standings but were seeded third on a tiebreaker. Now, the Bruins represent a potential redemption game in a hypothetical semifinals.
There are three keys to a successful Vegas trip for the Cardinal — the first are the freshmen. With guard Haley Jones still out, the remaining members of the nation’s second-ranked recruiting class will need to shine.
Forward Fran Belibi had her best game of the season against Arizona State. Forward Ashten Prechtel was just named Sixth Player of the Year in the media vote. Guard Hannah Jump shoots 37.7% from beyond the arc but has seen her minutes wane recently. Stanford’s highest ranking nationally in any stat category is made 3-pointers, and they just might need Jump to shoot the lights out to make a deep run.
“We have a very young group, and this is their first time in the tournament,” VanDerveer said. “Keep doing all the good things they’ve been doing, not let the tournament lights change anything.”
The next key will be defense, which comes down to the Hull twins, Lexie and Lacie. Lexie was named First Team All-Pac-12 defense, and Lacie was an honorable mention alongside Fingall. Defense is a significant part of senior guard Anna Wilson’s game and an underrated aspect of junior guard Kiana Williams’s play.
On the topic of Williams, as VanDerveer has said all year, “Ki” is the key. In the last five games, Williams has scored 33% of Stanford’s points, with the offense running through her hands more than ever. The All-Pac-12 first team member has carried the offense when others have lagged — and she has at times won games virtually single-handedly.
The final key will be the adjustments of VanDerveer, already a Hall of Fame coach. There are unique challenges of playing a team for a third time and winning for a third time. More difficult, however, will be playing a team for the third time and winning for the first.
“This is a very tough conference where I think we’re the best conference in the country,” VanDerveer said. “And do we want to be first? Yeah. And now we get a chance. You know, we didn’t get it the first time. Now we’re trying for a second time.”
To do so, Stanford would potentially need to go through three NCAA tournament teams from the highest-rated conference by RPI in three days.
“You’ve seen yourself against them,” VanDerveer said. “You know matchups— you understand what they’re doing.”
Stanford opens tournament play against Oregon State tonight at 8:30 p.m. PT.
“Our coaches do an amazing job of trying to scout for us,” Fingall said. “I think if we all just really dial in and execute during the game, there’s nobody that can beat us.”
Contact Daniel Martinez-Krams at danielmk ‘at’ stanford.edu.