SPOKANE, Wash. — The good news, if you’re Tara VanDerveer, is that the team you’re coaching just (mostly) entered the Elite Eight with a 72-66 win over Maryland and didn’t not played near the level of which it is capable.
The bad news, if you’re everyone in women’s college basketball, it’s exactly the same.
Stanford reached its third straight Elite Eight on Friday night, and 22nd under VanDerveer. It wasn’t pretty in the end, with Maryland beating the Cardinal 30-13 in the final period, which the Hall of Fame coach didn’t find amusing.
“We had three good quarters,” VanDerveer joked. “I’m glad the game only lasts four quarters.”
But the fourth quarter was proof of one of the most alarming realities of the NCAA Women’s Tournament: The Cardinal has yet to peak. Not even close.
“I think we can do better,” VanDerveer said. “I’m glad we can play again and have another game to show how much we’ve improved.”
Perhaps an even more troubling development — for opponents, anyway — Stanford, which won the 2021 national title, is actually better and deeper than last year.
As proof, one only had to watch the regional semi-final at Spokane Arena, when different Cardinal players took turns dominating the Terrapins.
First it was forward Haley Jones, the toughest matchup in women’s college basketball, who scored eight points in the first seven minutes. Then it was sophomore forward Cameron Brink, who scored 13 of his 15 points in the first half and disrupted nearly every possession for Maryland with his long frame. It took Spokane Sisters Lexie and Lacie Hull a while to warm up, but midway through the second quarter, Lexie hit a drive-thru layup and on the next possession, threw the ball to her sister for 3.
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At one point, sixth woman Fran Belibi tried to steal the show when she crushed a Maryland perimeter attempt and sprinted across the floor to…dive? The crowd rose in anticipation, screaming before Belibi even got to the key.
She finally settled for a lay-up, but the message had been sent. Everyone on this Stanford team can play, and they’re all happy to take turns. And that was only in the first half, when Stanford took a 39-23 lead before the break.
“Since my time here, we’ve gone further and further every year,” said Jones, who finished with 17 points and 10 rebounds. “I see him every day in training. It doesn’t matter who is on which team, a different team wins every time.
“I got hot, Cam got hot, Lexie got hot and whoever it is, I think we do a really good job of feeding that hot hand. We do that every game.”
It’s odd to think that the defending champions, who are returning almost their entire roster (they’ve only graduated one player, All-American point guard Kiana Williams) and are favorites to go to their second straight Final Four, don’t have a real national player of the year candidate.
But it speaks to their depth – and it will continue to be a problem for every other team that faces the Cardinal. Every player except guard Anna Wilson, who plays important minutes for Stanford, is at least 6 feet tall, and many have an even longer wingspan. They are a nightmare defensively, using their length to disrupt passing lanes, block shots and generally cause other teams to miss. Offensively, every player is a threat out.
Maryland coach Brenda Frese, who had the privilege of playing at Stanford twice this season, said there was “no doubt” the Cardinal was the best team in the country.
“It’s their 23rd win in a row,” Frese said. “They are the deepest and most talented team I have ever faced.” She added that Stanford is not getting the attention or respect it deserves nationally.
Perhaps the best example of Stanford’s depth is post freshman Kiki Iriafen’s play, who came on when Brink was in foul trouble and played an effective 10 minutes, scoring four runs and grabbing five boards. It wasn’t just Iriafen’s play that stood out, but the way her teammates celebrated her.
“Our team bought in, ‘it’s my role, I’m going to do it and I support my teammates,'” VanDerveer said. “It’s really special. They talk about us instead of me. It is refreshing.
Brink is better than last year – and that came after an absolutely stellar freshman campaign. Wilson is more consistent offensively. Jones understands better how to support games. Belibi is more reliable. The list is lengthened increasingly.
How much better can Stanford get before falling to Texas at 9 p.m. EST on Sunday?
The answer to this question might scare everyone in the NCAA Tournament.