Sunday was supposed to be an opportunity to celebrate the magical 2021 national championship in front of the Cardinal faithful. Instead, it was a reminder of how difficult it will be to repeat.
Stanford (1-1, 0-0 Pac-12) scheduled a matchup with No. 25 Texas (2-0, 0-0 Big 12), an Elite Eight team from a year ago and a heavyweight worthy of a slot on national television. Maples Pavilion opened its doors to basketball fans for just the fourth time since March 2020. At the final buzzer, Texas upset then-No. 3 Stanford 61-56.
“I liked the ring celebration the best,” said Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer.
Stanford typically holds its Senior Day festivities postgame because VanDerveer prefers celebrations to follow the main event, and Sunday was no different, with the ring ceremony following the 40 minutes of on-court action.
Provost Persis Drell spoke. Athletic director Bernard Muir received a ring. Stanford’s bench sat in a stunned silence only occasionally broken for an applause.
“Congratulations champions,” VanDerveer told her team.
“We missed you last year so we’re really glad to have you back,” fifth-year Alyssa Jerome told the 3,681 fans in attendance. Before Sunday’s championship celebration, the parade was the only opportunity for most Stanford fans to celebrate the title.
On the video screen, Stanford played a message from Kiana Williams ’21, the only player from last season’s roster no longer on the team. Speaking to the Maples Pavilion audience from Australia, where she signed with the Adelaide Lightning, Williams said: “I think back-to-back champs sounds even better.”
On display Sunday, however, was just how difficult that task will be for Stanford without its three-year starting point guard.
“We miss her a lot,” Lexie Hull said. “I texted her about a week ago saying if she was gonna be here hoping she could fly back for the game. Obviously that could not happen. We really miss her. I think her message, she’s a leader on our team, we listen to her and she believes in us, we can believe in ourselves and I think just having her support throughout the season means a lot. We obviously miss her on the court and off. It meant a lot to hear her voice, though.”
Thus far, no one has stepped up as the next Stanford lead guard. Last year’s Final Four Most Outstanding Player, junior Haley Jones, played some point forward. Sixth-year Anna Wilson, seniors Lacie and Lexie Hull, and graduate transfer Jordan Hamilton alternated leading the offense. None found consistent success.
“This was throwing our young or inexperienced point guards into the deep end of the pool,” VanDerveer said. “They’re used to having Kiana out there, just getting the ball up the court and initiating and running our offense and you have people doing it that are not used to doing that job. To use a football analogy, a great running back is now playing quarterback.”
Sophomore guard Jana Van Gytenbeek did not play at all after getting 15 minutes against Morgan State, the second most of any non-starter.
Sunday felt normal, but different. Stanford was back in Maples, but in front of fans wearing T-shirts commemorating the title.
Players’ families returned to their allocated seats opposite of the Stanford bench. Kids, and kids at heart, tried their best to get on the video screen. The media found its spot tucked away in the rafters, no longer able to access the concourse that served as the social-distanced press row.
VanDerveer sat, while the opposing coach, Texas’ Vic Schaefer, demonstratively used the entire sideline and the first few feet of the court. A new, but familiar, face joined the Stanford bench as a “coaching intern” in Jeanette Pohlen ’11. From left to right, Stanford’s coaches lined up Pohlen, Britney Anderson, Kate Paye ’95, VanDerveer, Katy Steding ’90, and Eileen Roche.
With the noise of the crowd, the voice of VanDerveer or associate head coach Paye did not stand out quite as much. Nevertheless, the voice of public address announcer Betty Ann Hagenau was as clear as it was before or during the fanless season. Both teams still wore masks on the benches, as did all the fans in the seats and bleachers.
The crowd, however, had little reason to erupt until junior forward Ashten Prechtel made a 3-pointer that ended an 0-for-10 drought to start the game. Not much changed after, as Stanford finished an uncharacteristically awful 4-for-27. It was the worst 3-point shooting performance for Stanford since going 2-for-19 against Oregon State on Feb. 2, 2018 and only slightly better than a 2-for-13 performance against Schaefer’s Missouri State in the 2019 NCAA tournament.
Unlike last season, when Stanford spread the seats on its bench out by six feet, the Cardinal returned to the traditional linear bench. A total of 16 players dressed for Stanford on Sunday, and senior guard Jenna Brown joined the bench in street clothes, making for quite a long bench.
In spite of the depth, only one player not on the 2021 national championship roster played on Sunday. That was Jordan Hamilton, the four-year starter at Northwestern who became the program’s first graduate transfer. None of the four freshmen who made up the nation’s sixth-best recruiting class saw the court. Meanwhile, Texas’ star freshmen dominated.
Guard Rori Harmon, the tenth-ranked player in HoopGurlz 2021 rankings, scored a game-high 21 points. The sixth-ranked player in the class, forward Aaliyah Moore, hauled in four offensive rebounds. Finally, the Missouri State transfer Aliyah Matharu, playing in her second game at Texas, made all four of her 3-pointers, matching Stanford’s output. HoopGurlz ranked Stanford freshman forward Brooke Demetre 11th, but none of Stanford’s four freshmen broke into Sunday’s rotation.
VanDerveer, after giving credit to Texas, mentioned that Texas played without any pressure. Texas, on the other hand, put Stanford under full court pressure. Without a capable point guard, and with the added pressure of a postgame ring ceremony, Stanford struggled and Texas played spoiler.
“We were just talking about it before we came in here,” Harmon said. “It’s just an honor to be here and to play in front of all these people and on national TV and play against Stanford, the defending champions.”
“I knew this was going to be an emotional day for Stanford,” Schaefer said. They’re honoring a great team, a national championship.”
Where Schaefer called Stanford the same team from the championship game minus one starter, VanDerveer emphasized the importance of that one player.
“More than anything, our team is very different when you’re asking people to play different positions,” VanDerveer said. “Our lack of experience at our point guard was on full display, and we just have a lot of work to do.
Stanford turned the ball over 20 times and let Texas dictate the style of play. It turned into a physical game and Stanford converted well at the line. But for every positive, there were two negative takeaways.
The game itself was heartbreaking, but just as quickly as Stanford shifted from its loss to the celebration, it will need to again turn its attention to a difficult non-conference schedule.
“Obviously losing is not fun, but I think that there’s a lot that we can learn from it, and especially knowing that areas of our game that we need to improve are definitely areas that we saw exposed today,” Hull said. “I think later on in the season, we’ll look back on this game as a blessing in disguise as much as we don’t like it right now.”
Texas became the first non-conference opponent to beat Stanford in Maples since a Dec. 21, 2017 loss to No. 7 Tennessee. Only Wilson, the sixth-year, and Jerome, the fifth-year, carry over from that roster.
More importantly, Stanford snapped its 21-game win streak. During that time, Stanford won a Pac-12 regular and tournament championship and a national championship. Earlier in the charmed season, VanDerveer became the winningest coach in the sport. Maybe it is good that, besides the memories and the program’s third trophy, none of that charmed run carries over. The challenge for Stanford will be taking on the challenge of playing as the defending champion, even while moving on and not resting on their laurels.
After the weekend, Texas moved up to No. 12 in the polls. Stanford slid down to No. 7. The climb back to the top was always promised to be a challenge.