Grades are due next Monday, but head coach Tara VanDerveer already submitted the final letter: C.
VanDerveer posed the grade to the locker room and heard agreement. In case anyone did dissent, the Hall of Fame coach had a laundry list of justifications for her grade.
Stanford was “discombobulated” on offense, did not play with flow, turned the ball over 16 times and, despite hitting on 52% of its three-pointers and 46.6% of all field goals, missed plenty of makeable shots.
Still, the grade was passing. No. 1 Stanford (27-2, 19-2 Pac-12) never trailed against No. 8 Oklahoma State (19-9, 13-5 Big 12) and will head to the Sweet 16 following a 73-62 win.
“Our team obviously is excited to be moving on, but the tone in the locker room was we can play a lot better,” VanDerveer said. “Our free throws [were] 6-of-12. You don’t win at the highest level shooting 50% from the free throw line.”
For Stanford, the shooting was particularly disappointing, because fifth-year guard Anna Wilson felt they were in a shooter’s gym inside of UTSA Convocation Center. Not only did shots that usually fall in practice clank, but so did point-blank layups. Still, Wilson scored 11, made four of her five shots and all three of her attempts from range. Sophomore forward Haley Jones, who had made just one three-pointer all season and attempted nine, also liked the setup and made two of her three attempts. She scored a game-high 17 points and was joined by Wilson and two more teammates in double figures.
That’s where Stanford is right now. VanDerveer’s team can win a tournament game wire to wire, make 13 three-pointers, win the rebounding battle, convert 16 opponent turnovers to 27 points and still point to a myriad of reasons it was not good enough.
When asked at the postgame Zoom press conference what VanDerveer might have in store for practice this week, Wilson answered as if the team lost. Wilson, who played a season-high-tying 35 minutes, should be excused the slip-up. But an eleven-point tournament win feeling like a letdown feels right for Stanford.
“Being in a tournament like this, after a loss, obviously you want to focus on some of the things that you can learn from, but not dwelling on it too much,” Wilson said. “There’s so much to learn about the next team that we can play. We’re looking forward to a really good matchup here in the next round.”
So, Stanford will rewind the game tape and find a number of areas where the team excelled.
Wilson’s defense on Ja’Mee Asberry stood out. The Oklahoma State guard came in averaging 17.4 points per game, but as Wilson has done all season, she kept her mark in check. Asberry finished with just six points and made two of her six shots. Wilson was credited with two steals and Asberry turned the ball over four times.
Wilson was, in her coach’s word, “terrific” on both ends of the court. All season long, her defense has been her calling card. She has shut down opponent after opponent in the Pac-12, from UCLA’s Charisma Osborne to Arizona’s Aari McDonald to Oregon State’s Aleah Goodman and Washington State’s Charlisse Leger-Walker. She is also a dangerous outside shooter averaging over 40% for the season. On Tuesday, her first two made threes were the first six points of the game, and her third and final three-pointer pushed Stanford’s lead to 15 right before halftime.
“Defense is really my focus and has been my focus for the entire season,” Wilson said. “If I can fill in wherever our team really needs me then, I try and do that as much as possible. We have such great scorers on our team, such great depth and so for me it’s if the team needs something, then I try to fulfill that.”
The half-court defense as a whole was a high point. Stanford focused on Oklahoma State’s senior forward Natasha Mack because, as Wilson put it, she is an All-American. Like Stanford’s own senior guard Kiana Williams, Mack was named to the All-America third team. For Stanford, it meant that everyone on the court needed to be ready to help freshman forward Cameron Brink with her assignment of guarding Mack.
The defense has carried the Cardinal all season. No opponent has shot better than 41.8% all season and while Oklahoma State flirted with 48% as late as the third quarter, it ended the game at 41.1%. Mack scored 13 points, making four of her 12 shots. She also had a game-high 10 rebounds, but, despite leading the nation in blocked shots with 4.1 per game, had just one against Stanford. Instead, it was Brink who brought the hammer with five blocks and nine rebounds.
“I think Cam is capable of guarding anyone when she puts her mind to it,” Wilson said. “If you’ve watched her play all season, she’s an energy player so she’s excited about those kinds of matchups. She’s obviously really young, so seeing her take on that assignment defensively, she has a lot of upside.”
“I’m really proud of how well Cam played against someone that good, she really focused,” VanDerveer said. “It wasn’t just Cam. I thought Ashten Prechtel did a good job and Fran Belibi… That was a really a big key to the game, both Anna Wilson’s defense and Cam’s defense and people helping.”
VanDerveer is quick to attribute the defense to execution by the players, while the players always defer to the scouting report given by their coaches. This time, the scouting report dictated that Stanford would double Mack in the post. This is where the negatives from the game are a factor.
Stanford based its defense on the “numbers,” but as the game wore on and Mack was able to distribute out of that position, Stanford pulled back from that game plan. While Mack was held below her season average 20.0, many of her Oklahoma State teammates exceeded their own season averages.
The worst offenders were guards Lexy Keys and Neferatali Notoa. Keys had been averaging 7.1 points per game and reached double figures just six times this season, but scored 12 on the Cardinal. Notoa, like Keys a freshman, had never exceeded 10 points and averaged 3.9 per game, but accounted for 14 of Oklahoma State’s total.
“They had some people step up and that’s great for them,” Wilson said. “We were okay with other people making shots, the amount of shots they made, maybe not.”
“Defensively we played okay,” Wilson added.
Oklahoma State had two runs of seven unanswered points: one run of nine unanswered and another of 10 straight points. Stanford’s defense was streaky, at best.
Stanford’s offense did not do its defense any favors. Sixteen turnovers and missed shots allowed Oklahoma State to get moving in transition. In total, Oklahoma State had 17 fastbreak points to Stanford’s five; typically, Stanford prefers to be the team dictating the pace and thriving at high speeds. For that reason, VanDerveer called turnovers the “major problem.”
“We were sloppy with the ball and you can’t do that at this level,” VanDerveer said. “Credit to Oklahoma State, they were more aggressive than we were. It was a very physical game, I don’t know if it came across that way watching it, but bodies were on the floor.”
The body on the floor was, at one point, that of Williams. With a minute to go in the third quarter, Williams was whistled for a personal foul while simultaneously falling hard on her ankle. She left the game, got checked out and returned to the court a minute into the fourth quarter with Stanford clinging to a 13-point lead.
Playing the rest of the game, Williams went 0-for-5 from the field and 1-for-2 at the free throw line. VanDerveer expects Stanford to have its senior leader back the next time the team takes the court.
“She will have her ankle in a bucket,” VanDerveer said. “Hopefully it will be alright.”
Stanford will need Williams for its next game and any aspirations of a deeper tournament run. Though she made four of her fifteen shots, all came from beyond the arc, and her value as the primary ball handler is incalculable. Still, the C grade was evidence of room for improvement.
“This wasn’t our team’s best game. Statistically, it wasn’t,” Wilson said. “If you were watching the game, it wasn’t our best game. We know that. I think for me, and for the whole team, we know that we have so much more to give and we’re really excited for the next opportunity to go out there and play.”
“We’re lucky that we have another opportunity to go out there and play,” Wilson added.
The talent gap allowed Stanford to play a subpar game and still advance, where it awaits the winner of the matchup between No. 5 Missouri State and No. 13 Wright State. There is luck in that, but also a season’s worth of hard work at Taube Tennis Center, Maples Pavilion and high school gyms.
“You’re in the tournament, and you’re excited to move on so that’s what we’re doing,” VanDerveer said.