Stanford is scheduled for an appointment and hoping it will not be another root canal.
The list of things that have changed since Stanford’s last Sweet 16 game is long, but the opponent has not. First-seeded Stanford (27-2, 19-0 Pac-12) will play for a spot in the Elite Eight on Sunday against fifth-seeded Missouri State (23-2, 16-0 MVC).
Two years ago, Stanford shot 25% from the field and 10% from 3-point range but survived to advance to the regional final. After the game, head coach Tara VanDerveer likened the experience to the worst kind of dental procedure and quipped that she did not know what game Alanna Smith ’19 was watching when the star forward said she was not worried.
“They’re just a very physical, aggressive, very well coached and very skilled team,” VanDerveer said on Friday’s Zoom press conference with the media. “We did not play well against them last time so it’ll be a challenge for us to shoot the ball better than we did. I have to think that we can. We were three-for-29 from 3. But we did rebound well, so that was good for us. At this level, when you’re in the Sweet 16, you just have to find a way to win, and our team did that last time and I hope that we will play better this time.”
“I remember just struggling to score offensively,” said senior guard Kiana Williams, who made three of 17 shots in that game and missed all 11 3-point attempts in the 2019 matchup.
That Sweet 16 game was the last for head coach Kellie Harper, who left Missouri State for the same job at Tennessee. The new coach in Springfield, WBCA National Coach of the Year Finalist Amaka Agugua-Hamilton, has maintained the defensive identity. So far, it has worked to the tune of 19 straight wins, though Missouri State opted out of the semifinals of the MVC tournament when a positive COVID-19 result was discovered in their opponent’s Tier 1 personnel.
Missouri State opponents average 55.9 points and have never scored more than 73 points in one game all season; 23 of 25 have scored below their season average. Missouri State is also one of the better rebounding teams in the country with an average plus-11.2 margin. Both efforts are led by forward Jasmine Franklin, the MVC Defensive Player of the Year, with 9.6 rebounds per game.
Missouri State beat second-seeded Maryland in its second game of the year, holding the Terrapins to 72 points. Maryland has established itself as the nation’s best offense, averaging 91.5 points per game and scoring 98 and 100 points in the first and second round of the NCAA Tournament.
Last round, Missouri State put the clamps on Wright State and held their opponent to 39 points. The game was tied with four minutes to play in the first half at 19 — Missouri State does not light it up on offense — but ended with a 25-point margin of victory.
Guard Elle Ruffridge led Missouri State in scoring against the Raiders as she hit five 3-pointers off the bench. She has started 15 games this season, including 10 straight before the tournament, but has come off the bench for both NCAA Tournament games, allowing guard Mya Bhinhar to start as a more defensive presence. Whether Ruffridge or Bhinhar starts on Sunday will be the first clue as to how Agugua-Hamilton (also known as Coach “Mox”) plans to slow down Stanford.
“Any lineup they put out there is a very strong lineup,” VanDerveer said. “I personally like to bring offense off the bench and maybe that’s why she brings in number two, Ruffridge. But whichever way they go, our team will be ready and we know that they’ve got a lot of great players and a lot of them are going to play so we’ll have to go through the different lineups and the different matchups we want to have and things that we want to do.
“But I’m not going to try to coach another team, I’ve got enough on my plate with our own team.”
When Ruffridge does not score a career-high in points, Missouri State is most often led by guard Brice Calip, the MVC Player of the Year, who averages 13.5 points and 4.1 assists per game. Forward Abby Hipp and guard Sydney Wilson round out the typical starting five, with all five averaging at least eight points per game.
Calip credited Coach Mox with improving the team’s confidence through focus on individual skills. When Missouri State reached the Sweet 16 two years ago, Calip and her teammates enjoyed the moment.
“She believes in every single one of us, she knows that we each have a chance to fulfill our roles, and just knowing that we could all produce at whatever time of the game that we need,” Calip said. “The coaching staff has definitely developed us as a whole, as a group. So each little piece in the puzzle that we have in our team, we know is going to step up.”
“Going into the tournament, the expectation was a little different. It was more of, we belong here and just walk in with that confidence and understanding that we’re good enough to make it back to the Sweet 16 and even further,” Agugua-Hamilton said. “I just think the confidence level is a lot higher. The trust is high. And that’s the difference I see.”
Coach Mox is focused on her bigs, who will be going up against freshman Cameron Brink, sophomores Haley Jones, Ashten Prechtel and Fran Belibi and senior Alyssa Jerome. The interior players need to “elevate the play offensively,” Agugua-Hamilton said.
“We’re going to isolate them in situations where they can use their strengths and then they also have to play off of some of our sets, things like that,” Agugua-Hamilton said. “Defensively though it’s going to be key for them. Stanford has some really great bigs and they’re deep in that spot and they’re big and athletic. It’s not that we’ve never played against big, athletic bigs before but you have to pay attention to detail, KYP (know your personnel) understand where we’re trying to exploit them in their offense and just go out there and do it.”
“Our posts definitely have the ability to do more,” Calip said. “They can produce. I said that from preseason that our post players are going to be our X Factor.”
In addition, the lineup is veteran-heavy. Nine different players have Sweet 16 experience from the game with Stanford in 2019, two more than any other roster in the nation. Stanford has six players who appeared in that game, including junior guard Jenna Brown, who made the trip to San Antonio but is out for the season with an injury.
“I would say Missouri State is a little bit of a combination of teams,” VanDerveer said when asked to compare her opponent to a Pac-12 team. “They’re a very fundamental team, they pass the ball well, they play a lot of people. I wouldn’t say they run like 100 plays, but what they do they do well. They execute very well. They’re, you know, similar maybe to a Washington State in terms of physical bodies, and then they get on the boards very well.They get a lot of steals, they rebound really well. They have an inside game and outside game. A lot of the top teams at this point have a great lead guard and they do in Brice Calip and then Franklin inside.”
Stanford’s own lead guard, Williams, is recovering from an ankle injury she suffered against Oklahoma State. Williams took Wednesday off after the Tuesday game, but was back in action for a lighter Thursday practice. VanDerveer expected Williams to be a full go for Friday’s full speed practice.
After consecutive night games in the first two rounds, Stanford will tip off against Missouri State on Sunday at noon PT.
“We’ll play anytime, anywhere,” Williams said. “Doesn’t matter, later in the day, early or midday. We just want to play.”
The “other” tournament
Due to COVID-19 precautions, tournament teams are unable to fully explore San Antonio, which by now is well known as Williams’ hometown. Stanford has developed some successful strategies for navigating life out of a hotel throughout the 10 weeks on the road during the season when Santa Clara County prohibited college athletics.
The team has been able to get outside and on Thursday, took a boating trip and floated along the Riverwalk. There is also a designated path for the NCAA players to walk and get some vitamin D.
Inside the meeting room, the team has an Xbox and a ping pong table. As far as the Xbox, Williams prefers Madden because that was the game of choice for her brothers Chancy Campbell, Michael Williams and Javion Coleman. Williams was also the tournament selection committee for the ping pong tournament. On Friday’s call, the media had fun with the star guard.
“I made the bracket and got knocked out of the first round, I don’t know how that works,” Williams said.
“Seems like a problem with the seeding,” joked Jacob Rayburn of Cardinal Sports Report.
“Yea, I set myself up for failure,” Williams said.
When VanDerveer sat down for her turn to speak, her first comment was: “I got a bad drawing that ping pong tournament too.”
VanDerveer, however, did not complain to the committee.
“Once the bracket’s set, you’re in the bracket,” the Hall of Fame head coach said. “Ashten took it to me. We had a good two-out-of-three match.”
In addition to VanDerveer’s loss to sophomore forward Ashten Prechtel, as best we can piece it together, junior guard Lexie Hull beat sophomore forward Haley Jones, sophomore guard Hannah Jump beat junior guard Lacie Hull and associate head coach Kate Paye lost.
“I’m hoping to come out of the Loser’s Bracket,” VanDerveer said.