Stanford women’s basketball is the first overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. While the Cardinal will headline the Alamo region, all games will take place in the San Antonio area.
The University of Connecticut, North Carolina State University and the University of South Carolina also earned No. 1 seeds.
The Cardinal’s first tournament game will come against Utah Valley. The winner will play the winner of No. 8 Oklahoma State and No. 9 Wake Forest.
“They say Christmas is the best time of the year but I think March Madness is the best time of the year,” senior guard Kiana Williams said.
Williams, a San Antonio native, leads a group of four players averaging double figure scoring. She had 26 points in the Pac-12 Tournament championship game that clinched the automatic berth.
“Just to be going home and play in front of family, it’s, I don’t have the words for it. It’s a blessing,” Williams said. “I’m just so excited. It’s crazy, what senior can play their last college games in their hometown? How does that happen? I’m just extremely thankful for the moment, just going to take one day at a time… We have Utah Valley to get ready for so that’s what we’re going to do.”
Head coach Tara VanDerveer’s team is in a region with No. 2 Louisville, No. 3 Georgia and No. 4 Arkansas.
The season started with a single game in Maples Pavilion, continued with a road trip highlighted by VanDerveer breaking the all-time record for wins in women’s college basketball and reached a low point with back to back losses to Colorado and UCLA. When the team was practicing after the second loss, on the road in a high school gym with a slippery floor, the lights went off. At that moment, Williams asked herself, “What else is going to be thrown at us?” Since then, Stanford has won 14 consecutive games punctuated by a dominant Pac-12 championship game win over UCLA.
“Being on the road for 10 weeks, we were forced to spend more time with each other,” Williams said. “On the court, we are really talented and we hold each other accountable. The adversity we went through, being on the road, I think that had helped us on the court.”
After missing out on a tournament selection show, Stanford finally got to hear its name called once again.
“It was taken away from us,” VanDerveer said. “Then the gym was taken away from us, games at home were taken away from us … Just being out there, it felt a little surreal to be honest with you — ‘is this really happening?’ — because it was taken away from us last year.”
Tournament experience is light on the active roster. Obviously, no freshmen or sophomores on any team have played in the NCAA Tournament. But DiJonai Carrington ’20, who could have played a fifth year at Stanford, transferred to Baylor, where she was named the Big 12 Sixth Player of the Year. Senior forward Maya Dodson opted out of the season and has since announced her intention to transfer to Notre Dame. And junior guard Jenna Brown is sitting out this season on a medical redshirt.
That leaves just five players with any NCAA Tournament experience. Fifth year guard Anna Wilson is the only player remaining from the 2017 trip to the Final Four, but she did not play at all during that postseason (or the next) due to injuries. In Stanford’s last tournament win, a gritty performance to beat Missouri State back in 2019, Wilson scored 11 off the bench and delivered a prescient quote postgame.
“My defense is kind of my thing, so if I can score some points, that’s nice, too,” Wilson said at the time. “So I think for me, I just want to play as hard as I can and continue playing.”
Williams and senior forward Alyssa Jerome have each played in seven postseason games. Williams is averaging a little over 34 minutes per game, shooting 37.8% and scoring 14.4 points per game. The team’s primary ball handler is also averaging a healthy 2.2 assists per turnover in the postseason. Besides an 0-for-11 game from 3-point range in the ugly win over Missouri State (which is in the Alamo Region as a No. 5 seed), Williams has made a 3-pointer in every game of her postseason career. Without that game bringing down her average, she would be shooting a career 45.9% from beyond the arc in the NCAA Tournament.
The only other Cardinal with tournament experience are junior guards Lacie and Lexie Hull. Then again, no one has more tournament experience than VanDerveer. This will be her record 35th appearance in the NCAA Tournament. For Stanford, it is the 33rd consecutive and 34th overall NCAA Tournament bid. Stanford is 89-31 all-time in the NCAA Tournament and 51-27 in games away from Maples Pavilion.
“That’s a level playing field. The players that we have, that have been in the tournament, will recognize what help their other teammates need,” VanDerveer said. “The Pac-12 tournament, having played in that twice for everyone basically, that’s very helpful so you get tournament experience and you understand you have to play that day or go home.”
Since returning from Las Vegas, Stanford has been able to rest and work on time and score situations. VanDerveer has kept the practices short and focused on the little things that are magnified in big moments, like playing against a press.
Forward Cameron Brink has started each of the last 14 games, all wins, but like the rest of the freshmen learned the team’s gameplan on Zoom over the summer.
“It did take her a while to get in the flow of things, but I think she’s doing fantastic,” VanDerveer said. “She’s so versatile. She can hit the inside shot, outside shot, she runs the floor really well and she rebounds really well. Don’t let the frame fool you — she’s tough. She’s very physical.”
In March, free points and extra possessions are more important than ever. The same four players with the most rebounds per game are also the four players getting to the free throw line the most. Lexie Hull, Brink, sophomore forward Haley Jones and sophomore forward Fran Belibi each have their work cut out for them over the final weekends of the season.
All year long, the team has relied on its defense. Wilson, the Pac-12 Co-Defensive Player of the Year, leads the effort, but everyone is involved.
“Anna doesn’t know this but I kind of compete with her,” Williams said. “Her not letting her person score — I don’t want to let my person score. I think when we feed off each other like that, we’re a really dangerous team.”
VanDerveer was at the helm in 1990 and 1992 for both of Stanford’s national championships. Stanford has appeared in 10 Final Fours since then and reached the title game twice.
Stanford was ranked second in the AP Top 25 released on Monday behind UConn and was ranked first in the NET ranking used for the first time in the committee’s selection. replacing RPI. On Monday, UConn announced that head coach Geno Auriemma tested positive for COVID-19.
“First of all, I hope that if he tested positive that he’s able to recover very quickly,” VanDerveer said. “Our whole staff and team, we’ve worked really hard, and we want to stay negative through this tournament, and keep playing.”
Stanford will depart to Texas on Tuesday. The opening round matchup against Utah Valley is scheduled to tip off Sunday at 7 p.m. PT.