Head coach Tara VanDerveer views her team through the metaphor of an orchestra.
Every game has its soloist. Sometimes, it is a duet. On occasion, the crowd stands on its feet and pleads for an encore. But there is only one conductor: Kiana Williams.
Dominating from start to finish was the theme of Stanford’s regular season and much of the NCAA tournament, but Tuesday’s Elite Eight matchup was a tale of two halves, or more accurately, a tale of two Williams. The senior guard had an awful first half. She made one of her 11 shots. She was pressing. After handling the pressure of playing in front of friends and family in her hometown with poise through the first three games, Williams cracked in the first half. She was off beat. She was out of tune.
But the conductor does not leave the game. She played all 20 first half minutes and limped to intermission trailing by 12 and shooting 27.8%. Her Hall of Fame head coach, defined by her refined calm, lit into her. Cymbals crashed.
“I told her, I just said ‘run your team. Be a leader on the team and play through spurts,’” VanDerveer said. “I got on her, I’ll be honest with you. I got on Kiana and really our whole team, and Kiana stepped up just so big in the second half.”
Sophomore forward Ashten Prechtel had not been heard from in the first half. Like she did the on-court action for the first 20 minutes, she watched the halftime tirade.
“I’d say she ripped into us a little bit,” Prechtel said. “Our defense wasn’t great. They were hitting from 3. So basically the message coming out of halftime was that we needed to compete in the second half if we wanted to be in this game. I think we took that to heart.”
At first, the second act was undistinguishable from the first. As had happened all night long, the two teams traded buckets but Louisville made the plays. Star guard Dana Evans sank a 3-pointer to bring the score to 43-29.
Then Williams answered with a jumper. And then (nearly) every other Stanford shot started falling. For the final 17 minutes, Stanford went on a 49-20 run. The Cardinal made 20-of-32 shots and six-of-eight from beyond the arc. Williams, as always, was the key.
“Once I got that first shot to go in, things just started going for us,” Williams told Holly Rowe. “I’m just so proud of this team. We’ve been through so much, like every other team in the nation’s been through so much, but for them to get this done, I love them, Holly, I love them so much. I just wanted this so bad for them. We just have to keep fighting.”
“I just had to change my mentality,” Williams added. “I was forcing things; I think I wanted it too bad. I had to let the game come to me. My coaches got on me and my teammates picked me up and I just had to change my mentality coming out in the second half.”
First-seed Stanford (29-2, 19-2) completed the improbable comeback with a dramatic crescendo to top second-seed Louisville (26-4, 14-2) by a final score of 78-63. Stanford will advance to its 14th Final Four in program history and face fellow one-seed South Carolina on Friday.
Ask anyone in the Stanford locker room, and the Final Four was far from guaranteed. Not only did VanDerveer lay into Williams at halftime, but she also told her team to compete. To put together a performance of which they could be proud.
“Honestly, I didn’t recognize the people in the jerseys in the first half,” VanDerveer said. “I thought we were taking a lot of bad shots. We weren’t taking care of the ball. I just said, you know, don’t worry about winning. Compete, and be aggressive.”
“It’s great to be in the Final Four,” VanDerveer added. “It didn’t look like it was going to happen in the first half at all.”
Stanford could draw on endless fountains of inspiration. Playing on the road for 10 weeks. The shot at a championship and ending Stanford’s 29-year title drought. Rewarding VanDerveer with another opportunity to climb the ladder to the precipice and cut down a net. But in the end, the thought that hit home was that they did not want the season to end. All of the magic that this team has created can only be captured once.
“When we were down 12 at halftime, I hadn’t thought about that it could be our last game before, and that’s when I started to think about it,” Prechtel said. “I didn’t want that, like we don’t want that. We want to stay here for the long haul.”
“Coming out of halftime in the locker room, we just wanted to start competing,” Prechtel added.
Williams’ bucket began a 17-2 run that saw Stanford capture the lead for the first time with 2:22 on the clock in the third quarter. Williams made five of her nine shots in the half, scored 12 points and dished out four of her five assists. Undoubtedly, she could have become a pass-first point guard. She could have looked to set up her teammates on every play. Of course, that is not Stanford’s offense, nor is that Williams. Her teammates would not have let her, anyway.
“We just told Ki to keep shooting, and that’s what she did,” Prechtel said. “Coming out of the second half, we’re like, we’re going to play like we’re down 20, and we’re going to come out of this game, and we’re going to be happy with how we played in the second half regardless of the outcome.”
That aggressiveness began on defense. Williams matched up with guard Kianna Smith, a transfer from Cal, and matched a career high with five steals. Fifth year guard Anna Wilson slowed down Evans, if only just enough. Junior guard Lexie Hull forced guard Hailey Van Lith into an inefficient game. Most of all, Prechtel inserted herself on the inside.
Louisville made over half of its first half shots but just 10 of its 33 in the second half. By the end, Louisville’s shooting percentage fell to 40.6%, continuing the streak of no team shooting over 41.8% on Stanford all year.
There are so many intricacies to the game. At the big picture, though, Stanford struggled to make shots in the first half, fell behind and captured the lead when Louisville shot on the half of the court with a lid on the rim.
“If we were in a heavyweight fight, we were on the mat. We were getting pummeled,” VanDerveer said. “I think just our team just decided that we were going to be throwing the punches instead of being the recipient. We got more aggressive, and it started, I think, with Anna’s defense. Kiana stepped up defensively, got steals. We didn’t allow them to get second shots.”
Freshman forward Cameron Brink, as she did for the 17 games prior, started the game at the five. In the first half, she picked up five blocks, but also an injury. For the second half, VanDerveer went back to Brink. Then she went to sophomore forward Fran Belibi. When she called on Prechtel, she never had to take her out again.
“Cam was doing well, but she was limping a little bit, and she wasn’t getting back on defense. So I did go with Ash,” VanDerveer said. “Fran, defensively, didn’t understand what we needed her to do, and we didn’t have time to explain it. But Ashten came in, and she gave us — she was a two-way player. She played great defense. She rebounded. Honestly, I thought her 3 was the shot that really just kind of said, ‘All right, we’re back, we can win this game.’
“It was really exciting to see her play well,” VanDerveer said. “She’s been doing great things for us all year. She really picked a great time to shine.”
While the substitution was defensive, Prechtel earned her minutes on offense. She scored a season-high 16 points in 16 minutes and made all six of her field goals. It is also important to note that Prechtel is listed at 6-foot-5. Normally, bigs like that do not make all three of their 3-pointers in an Elite Eight game. Behind her size, shooting, defense, two blocks, four assists and three rebounds, Stanford was plus-27 when she was on the court.
Unsurprisingly, Louisville took notice. The solo was just too bright, too impressive and too outstanding not to.
“The difference was No. 11 (Prechtel) coming in the game,” Evans said. “She came in, and she was 6’6″, three-for-three from three, and she had four assists. So she came in, and she changed the game for them.”
“I feel like they came out third quarter with just urgency, and we just didn’t match that intensity,” Evans added.
Prechtel found her spots to stamp her name all over a game that will go down in program history. Louisville had no answer. Most teams don’t.
“Most teams guard me differently from the rest of our posts,” Prechtel said, “but I just knew, if I was open, I was going to take those shots.”
For the entire team, shot selection improved in the second half. The ball moved better. Stanford relaxed. After seven first half turnovers, Stanford had just two in the second. Williams’ fingerprints are all over these improvements. Making light of the frustrating first half, VanDerveer did say that it allowed her to give rest to people in the first half.
Prechtel aced her solo, but she was not the only one. Hull led the team with 21 points on six-of-14 from the field. She also made eight of her nine free throws. She scrapped for extra possessions with nine rebounds and three steals.
“Lexie played a great game,” VanDerveer said. “She played within herself. She worked hard at both ends of the court. She scored for us. She defended well.”
The same can be said for sophomore forward Haley Jones. Her defense has steadily improved and was at its best in the second half. She played 37 minutes, the most all season outside of the overtime loss to Colorado. VanDerveer took her out when she was winded and then started checking to see if she was ready to check back into the game. VanDerveer needed her contributions on both ends of the court: 10 points and 10 rebounds.
Williams’ conducting, the solos and the engaged audience combined for a win VanDerveer was ready to put among her best in the postgame Zoom press conference with the media.
“Especially because of this whole COVID situation,” VanDerveer said. “We’ve been in a hotel for two weeks. Maybe other teams would just say, ‘oh, that’s enough. We’re ready to go home.’ This team really showed in the second half what they’re made of, and I’m so proud, and I told them so after the game. I just love how we competed.”
Stanford survives to compete in at least one more game. In early returns, it appeared possible that Brink would return to the court for the Cardinal. The depth is there, but Stanford would prefer to have its starter in the lineup.
“We’ll have to wait and see how she’s doing,” VanDerveer said. “She told me she could go back in, but when she was out there, she didn’t move the way I wanted her to. I’m hoping with a couple days and treatment, she’ll be fine.”
Stanford will play first-seed South Carolina in the Final Four Friday at 3 p.m PT. Both teams have won each of their first four tournament games by double digits, with South Carolina blowing out Texas 62-34 in the Elite Eight.
Stanford faced South Carolina in the 2017 national semifinal, which was won by South Carolina 62-53 behind 19 rebounds from A’ja Wilson.
“They have a great post this year with Aliyah Boston. They have a great coach in Dawn Staley,” VanDerveer said. “They have a terrific team. They’re extremely well coached, athletic, they score, they run. We will have our work cut out for us.”