If last time was a root canal, this time was “fun.”
Far removed from numbing pain, head coach Tara VanDerveer’s first-seeded Stanford (28-2, 19-2 Pac-12) advanced to the Elite Eight with a convincing 89-62 victory over fifth seed Missouri State (23-2, 16-0 MVC).
Stanford will play in the Elite Eight for the 21st time against second-seed Louisville, which defeated Pac-12 foe No. 6 seed Oregon later in the day. If there is any pressure in trying to reach the Final Four for the 14th time or to win VanDerveer her first national championship since 1992, Stanford did not show it. Certainly not fifth year guard Anna Wilson, who was asked in the postgame press conference on Zoom about any pressure to bring a third national championship to the Farm.
“Pressure is a funny thing to talk about, I think, and I hope I don’t get too deep on you,” Wilson began. “Looking back to this past year, this isn’t really pressure. This is an opportunity for us to go and do something really special. Pressure is people who are struggling from this past year in regular life with COVID and all of the other viruses that are in our world. I think for us, it’s really an opportunity to go out there and finish our season in the way that we expect to finish it.
“With that framework and perspective on it, it allows you to play much more loose, and be in the moment,” Wilson added. “I was saying today: be where your feet are. That’s the most important thing, staying in the moment. We’re having fun — it’s just basketball.”
Wilson scored 13 points, shot five-of-six from the field and made her only 3-point attempt to stay perfect for the tournament. She added six rebounds, two assists and three steals. Stanford was an outrageous plus-36 in her 32 minutes.
Wilson had not scored in double figures in consecutive games all season before Sunday. Missouri State, at least initially, played off of her, trying to contain the other threats in Stanford’s starting lineup. Wilson made them pay.
“Obviously playing in the NCAA Tournament versus the Pac-12, the teams scout a little differently,” Wilson said. “And when you’re on a team where you have such great offensive talent like Haley Jones and Lexie Hull and Kiana Williams and Cameron Brink, they get a lot of attention. And I’ve been able to just be open at times and maybe trying to get some things in transition.”
You may have read this before, but Wilson shut down the best opposing guard. Brice Calip, the Player of the Year in the MVC, scored two points in the first half and missed all five of her shots from the field. In the second half, Calip added seven points to reach nine.
For Stanford and Wilson, all of this success relied on a piece of paperwork: Wilson’s petition for a fifth year of eligibility. Wilson had her initial request to the NCAA denied but wrote back with a letter and an appeal. A year later, she is starring and starting in the NCAA Tournament.
“I am so thankful that her appeal to the NCAA was approved so that she could come back for a fantastic senior year,” VanDerveer said. “This is what college sports is all about — someone that struggled early with injuries, with adjusting to college… We were just talking in the locker room, the coaches, is how much she has matured as a player and as a person, and she’s doing a great job as a leader.”
Wilson started a total of five games before her senior year, but has now been in VanDerveer’s starting lineup for 30 consecutive games. To the Hall of Fame head coach, it was all about the work that she put in over the offseason.
“I also think that for what goes on right now is that a lot of players want instant success,” VanDerveer said. “And basketball is kind of a slow-cooking game. It’s not instant oatmeal. It’s the slow kind. And Anna is a great example of someone dealing with adversity, being resilient and determined, and being persistent and staying with it. And I’m so proud of her and really excited for her and our team.”
The other display of maturity was sophomore forward Fran Belibi’s decision to not dunk. She has done it before, twice, in games. She dunks in every pregame. Stanford has lob plays designed for her. But with Stanford leading 76-42 in the fourth quarter, off a turnover that provided Belibi with the same runway she had in Berkeley or in Westwood, she went with the layup.
“I thought it was a good decision by her not dunking,” VanDerveer said.
Stanford made good decisions all game long. Sure, there were some shot selections that VanDerveer wanted back, but overall Stanford dominated. Stanford doubled Missouri State’s points in the paint and shot a blistering 15-of-32 from beyond the arc. Seven players made 3-pointers, the bench scored 33 points and the team had 18 fast break points. Turnovers never got out of hand and Stanford finished with a reasonable 10. Some players rushed shots, and eight-for-13 at the free throw line is nothing to write home about, but Wilson will tell you that while Stanford is happy, it still has room to peak at the right time.
“I still don’t think we’re playing our best basketball yet,” Wilson said. “We’re playing really well. We’re clicking in a lot of different ways than usual. But I think that each player has a lot more to give to the team. And I have more to give to the team.”
Sophomore forward Haley Jones contributed in all facets of the game with 11 points and a 3-pointer for the second straight game. She also had eight rebounds and five assists in 23 minutes.
The performance from senior guard Kiana Williams was equally as impressive. She continued to enjoy her hometown and scored 16 points, making six of 12 shots from the field and four-of-eight from beyond the arc. In her 30 minutes, she accounted for four assists and four rebounds.
Sophomore guard Hannah Jump led the team with 17 points on five 3-pointers in seven attempts. Her matchup is with video coordinator Celia Marfone, opposite of junior guard Lexie Hull and sophomore forward Ashten Prechtel.
“To go 15-for-32, 46% from 3 as a team is awesome. So we shot the ball well,” VanDerveer said. “I thought Anna did a great job defending a terrific player in Brice Calip. And Haley and our post players, I thought, did a very good job defending Jasmine Franklin. So I think we were able to defend what they wanted to do and get out in transition.”
Missouri State was no pushover. Before the Sweet 16, the Lady Bears held opponents to 55.9 points per game and never allowed an opponent to surpass 73 points in a game all season. The MVC named forward Jasmine Franklin its conference Defensive Player of the Year. Before running into Stanford, Missouri was on a 19-game win streak, the second longest in program history.
Franklin still dominated the boards to the tune of a game-high 13. For the tournament, she is the co-leader with an average of 14 per game, which ties her for 13th all-time in a single NCAA Tournament. But freshman forward Cameron Brink, in just nine minutes due to an early foul, scored seven points and had five blocks. Whichever big came next, whether it was Prechtel, Belibi or senior Alyssa Jerome, held Franklin to eight points on one-for-10 from the field.
Behind Franklin, Missouri State had 43 rebounds to Stanford’s 45. Even though Stanford came out on top overall, Missouri State hauled in 18 offensive rebounds and won second chance points 13-10.
“People were making a lot of 3s, making a lot of shots,” Wilson said. “I think that we were playing pretty well, playing aggressive on offense, got some stops on defense. And our focus this game, though, was really our rebounding. And so moving forward, what’s going to separate us from other teams in these next few games is going to be rebounding.”
“One of the things that I thought we needed to do better, we needed to rebound better,” VanDerveer said. “And we needed to make our free throws going forward.”
Wilson pointed out that despite Stanford’s lead, the competition was still intense.
“It’s a competition for us to be our best selves,” Wilson said. “Even when the score has a large difference, we always want to be playing like we’re down. Of course, there’s momentum shifts and everything like that. But our focus is winning that quarter. So if we can do that, then we can put together a really great game.”
The biggest competition was in the stands, where Williams has around 50 friends and family in attendance to support her in her return to San Antonio.
“I told them that it was a competition for tickets, so if I don’t hear you I will have to rotate you through,” Williams told ESPN’s Holly Rowe postgame. “To be serious, it is great to be home. I haven’t played in front of my family all year, so for the tournament to be here, I just want to go hard for my senior year.”
Stanford’s next competition will be against second-seed Louisville on Tuesday.