At the end of the first quarter, No. 2 Stanford (1-0) was still trying to, as head coach Tara VanDerveer would say, fit all of the puzzle pieces together. Cal Poly (0-1), their first test of the season, had played the Cardinal closely over the first eight minutes and only trailed 18-14.
For the next 14 minutes, however, Stanford went on a 37-4 run that began with a free throw from sophomore guard Haley Jones and ended with junior guard Lexie Hull burying a 3-pointer with 8:06 remaining in the third quarter.
At the final buzzer, freshman guard Jana Van Gytenbeek dribbled out a 108-40 victory. The 68 point margin of victory was the third-largest in program history.
This basketball season is about so much, but nothing is bigger than VanDerveer’s quest to become the winningest coach in women’s college basketball. After the opening win, VanDerveer now needs just four wins to reach 1,099 and pass the legendary Pat Summitt in the record books.
Still, the Hall of Fame head coach continues to adapt in her 35th season at Stanford. In practice, VanDerveer has been using a microphone to elevate her voice over the mask and piped in crowd noise. For the game, without access to a microphone, VanDerveer used a red bullhorn, a first for her.
Senior guard Kiana Williams, who averaged just under 36 minutes per game last year, only played eight in the second half against Cal Poly. Still, she finished with 13 points on 5-of-11 shooting, including 3-of-6 from beyond the arc with four rebounds and two assists. Her 26 minutes were the most on the team — and Stanford was an absurd plus-45 while she was on the court.
Junior guard Lexie Hull was nearly perfect, making eight of her first nine attempts and 4-of-5 from three for a total of 21 points. Jones returned triumphantly from an injury that kept her out of the second half of last season. She scored 16 points on 6-of-10 shooting and 4-of-6 at the line with 10 rebounds and two assists.
“I definitely had more pregame jitters than I expected,” Jones said. “I haven’t suited up for a while — it was always sweats or leggings on the sidelines — so really putting on the uniform gave me those jitters just like freshman year.”
Jones scored the Cardinal’s first points of the season on a layup off an assist by sophomore forward Fran Belibi. After that bucket and a few minutes had passed, Jones said the jitters subsided.
“We see it every day in practice, but to see [Jones] actually playing in a real game was really exciting,” Hull said.
Jones matched up against Cal Poly’s forward Sierra Campisano, one of two players Stanford was hoping to shut down in its scouting report. Campisano scored a team-high 13 points but only shot 5-of-18 from the field. The Mustangs’ other top player, guard Abbey Ellis, was held to six points on 3-of-9 shooting. Both Campisano and Ellis ended with four fouls.
“I really liked how Haley Jones locked in defensively,” VanDerveer said. “For her to be out for that long and to get the assignment of guarding the best player, she really stepped up to the challenge.”
Another player that flashed improvements on defense was sophomore guard Hannah Jump, who also made strides in expanding her shot repertoire. Ending with 15 points, Jump was 6-for-11 from the field, including 3-of-7 from beyond the arc, but VanDerveer was happiest about the 3-of-4 from inside. At 41.4% from 3-point territory in 2019-20, Jump is the team’s best returning 3-point shooter, where she took 83.2% of her shots last year. VanDerveer said she was impressed by the two times where Jump sprinted the floor and was hit for layups, something she never did last season.
Jump’s effort speaks to a larger point of emphasis for Stanford to play with pace. The Cardinal defense came up with 10 steals and Cal Poly turned the ball over 26 times, which the offense converted into 38 points.
“We play our best basketball when we’re in transition and we’re playing with pace,” Jones said. “I don’t think that this is the peak of our pace. I think we still have a long way to go.”
VanDerveer, admitting that the lack of preseason exhibition games was “weird,” agreed with Jones that pace is one area in which Stanford has room to improve. The other is free throw shooting, where Stanford made just 18 of 31 attempts.
The freshmen, however, did not disappoint. As VanDerveer often says, freshmen are not asked when they check into a game what year they are, and none of the three played like freshmen. Forward Cameron Brink, the No. 3 recruit in the freshman class, dropped 17 points on 6-of-8 from the field and added nine rebounds. Like the rest of the team, she struggled from the free throw line, only making 5-of-10.
Freshman guard Agnes Emma-Nnopu, following in Alanna Smith’s ’19 footsteps as the second player to make the jump from Australia to Stanford, put on a show with seven rebounds — five of which came on the offensive glass. She also scored eight points and made her lone 3-point attempt.
Van Gytenbeek, the No. 39 recruit, had four assists, no turnovers, took all four of her shots from behind the arc (making two) and went 3-of-4 from the charity stripe.
VanDerveer said that the freshman point guard had been helped by playing with and against Williams in practice. All of the freshmen have upperclassmen mentors: Fifth-year guard Anna Wilson also taught Van Gytenbeek, the Hull twins have been helping Emma-Nnopu on the wing, and senior forward Alyssa Jerome, sophomore forward Ashten Prechtel and Belibi have been helping Brink in the post.
Both Belibi and Wilson were in the starting lineup after impressing the coaching staff in the preseason. Wilson had two points, five assists and three rebounds in 15 minutes — but VanDerveer said she played better during camp. Similarly, Belibi contributed two points, three rebounds and three assists, but VanDerveer offered that she may have put too much pressure on herself in this game.
The team showcased its depth in the win with all 12 healthy players appearing for at least six minutes and five reaching double digit scoring. Stanford has been tasked with replacing DiJonai Carrington ’20 (who transferred as a graduate student to Baylor), Estella Moschkau ’20 (who left for her home state Wisconsin), Nadia Fingall ’20 and Mikaela Brewer ’20. In addition, senior forward Maya Dodson opted out of the season, while junior guard Jenna Brown will miss the year after undergoing knee surgery.
“We were deep last year, but I think even more so this year,” Jones said. “That really is going to start to hurt teams in the long run when we’re able to play this tag team basketball that Tara always talks about.”
The game was the first for the team since a March loss to Oregon in the Pac-12 championship. Still, the game itself was not a guarantee due to the requirement of game-day antigen testing administered about four hours before the 11 a.m. PT tipoff.
“We were just hoping, up until this morning after getting everybody tested, that we’d have the game today,” Hull said. “I’m so thankful that we got to play a full 40 minutes. Who knew this was possible back in September?”
“I’m just really excited that our team got to play,” VanDerveer said. “I’m really just so thankful that we can play, and I want to thank San Luis Obispo for, number one, staying healthy so that we could play them.”
While the emptiness of Maples could have diminished the team’s energy, the bench made sure that was not the case.
“The energy was definitely there,” Jones said. “We’re up and dancing for every three and [for] rebounds we’re yelling.”
Stanford’s players and coaching staff were spaced out in individual chairs on the sideline and baseline. The one coach not on the sideline was associate head coach Kate Paye, who was kept off the sideline as a precaution due to a delay in her day-of antigen test. After the game, VanDerveer said that Paye, who compared herself to a bad AAU parent screaming from the stands, would be back.
The situation reminded VanDerveer of the 1995-96 season when she served as the coach of the USA team and watched Stanford games from the stands while Amy Tucker was named interim coach and led Stanford to the Final Four from the bench.
“My nightmare is I get stuck up in the stands,” VanDerveer added.
Elsewhere in the stands, each player was allowed two cut outs. The Hull sisters used their first two cutouts for their parents Jaime and Jason but saved the other two for their dogs Maggie and Lily.
On Sunday, Stanford will welcome Pacific to the Farm for a 4 p.m. tip-off.