By Zach Zafran
At the conclusion of Sunday’s game vs. Texas, Stanford women’s basketball was scheduled to celebrate its 2021 NCAA championship with a ring ceremony. Indeed, when the final buzzer sounded, a team celebrated on the floor of Maples Pavilion as if they had just won the national championship. However, that team was Texas, not Stanford.
Playing on national television, No. 25 Texas (2-0, 0-0 Big 12) took down No. 3 Stanford (1-1, 0-0 Pac-12), handing the Cardinal their first loss in 296 days. It was a tight contest, with neither team able to create much separation throughout the game.
Thanks to a fourth quarter explosion from the Longhorn offense, Texas ultimately prevailed, earning its first win against an AP Top 5 team since beating then-No. 1 Stanford in 2019.
Sunday was a showcase of strengths and weaknesses from both historic programs. Being early in the season, the teams will hope to build off the positives and address the negatives.
Here are the winners and losers from the Stanford vs. Texas matchup.
Winner: Texas’ defensive pressure
From the jump, Texas made it a goal to apply pressure defensively. After the tip-off went sailing out of bounds and Stanford was awarded possession, the Longhorn guards brought a full-court tenacity that forced the Cardinal to run a sideline out-of-bounds play just to get the ball in motion. This set the tone for the rest of the contest, as Stanford struggled to get the ball in bounds and bring it up the court.
“That’s who we are every night,” said Texas head coach Vic Schaefer of the team’s defensive presence. “We can’t go toe to toe with Stanford and be outsized at four positions — really five — unless we try to offset that and do what we do defensively, whether it’s the full court press or even the ball pressure out on the perimeter.”
The pressure certainly caught up to the Cardinal, who were called for numerous five-second violations. For the game, Stanford totaled 20 turnovers.
Loser: Stanford’s need for a floor general
For the most part, this year’s Stanford team is no different from any Tara VanDerveer-coached team we’ve seen in the past — they’re extremely disciplined.
The Cardinal put on a display of fundamental basketball, particularly early in the game. Their first basket of the day came on a textbook backdoor cut from sixth-year guard Anna Wilson. As the game progressed, they closed out without biting on fakes, walled up when contesting shots to avoid fouling and executed offensive movements with intent.
However, where this team strays from traditional VanDerveer teams is in its lack of a floor general. Texas’ defensive game plan exposed this gaping issue.
“The full court defensive pressure got us out of whack,” said Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer.
Throughout the last four seasons, the Cardinal relied on former point guard Kiana Williams ‘21 to tackle ball-handling duties. Without Williams, the Cardinal threw different players into the role and struggled to bring the ball up the court without encountering trouble.
“[The team] is used to having Kiana out there just getting the ball up the court and initiating and running our offense,” said VanDerveer.
Without a floor general to command the offense and protect the basketball, the Cardinal may be in trouble.
Winner: Stanford’s depth
Stanford has made headlines with its star-studded lineup, which includes the likes of senior guard Lexie Hull, junior guard Haley Jones and sophomore forward Cameron Brink, all of whom made the Naismith Trophy and Wooden Award Watch list. Because their pool of talent runs so deep, the Cardinal were able to turn to different players throughout the course of the game.
Early on, Jones was the focal point of the offense, driving down the lane and either finding open shooters or making shots of her own. As the game progressed, Hull made asserted her presence, scoring a team-high 17 points that included a sweet transition euro step.
In the closing minutes of the game, the Cardinal turned to the sharpshooting of junior forward Ashten Prechtel in hopes of climbing back from their deficit.
As the season progresses, teams will struggle to contain this Stanford team because of the sheer quantity of players that can impact the game.
Loser: Texas’ youth
Texas’ personnel include seven new additions to the program. Four of these additions are freshmen, and two were starters in Sunday’s game. In contrast to Stanford, who returns all but one starter from last season, Texas is relatively inexperienced.
“We got a couple freshmen that don’t know the plays,” said Schaefer. “That’s a wasted possession.”
As the season progresses and the Longhorns get more practice time, the feel for the playbook is sure to come. But in the meantime, as was the case on Sunday, the inexperience cost Texas some opportunities.
Winners: Rori Harmon and Aliyah Matharu
Despite inexperience costing the Longhorns some chances, it was in fact a freshman who led them to victory.
For most of the game, it was the Rori Harmon show. The freshman guard scored the Longhorns first eight points and continued to shine on her way to a game-high 21 points. A playmaker, Harmon impressed with her lightning-quick pull-up jumper and remained locked in on defense.
Harmon sat out for a good portion of the third quarter due to foul trouble, but she immediately made her presence felt upon returning in the fourth. She dazzled in her first two possessions coming off the bench and made highlight reels with an ankle-breaking step-back jumper.
As for junior guard Aliyah Matharu, she proved to be the X factor. Texas went 33 minutes without making a single three-pointer. Then, Matharu took over, going a perfect 4-for-4 from behind the arc and scoring all 17 of her points in the final frame. Her last three-pointer was the dagger, as it gave the Longhorns an insurmountable eight-point lead with 1:39 to play.
Loser: jump shooting
Stanford, a team known for its deep shooting ability, went a dismal 4-for-27 from behind the arc on Sunday. Most of the Cardinal’s field goals came from within the paint, as their attempts from the midrange struggled to find the net as well.
These struggles were not specific to Stanford, however, as the Longhorns also failed to hit shots from deep. After a 131-point performance in its season opener, only Matharu connected from deep against the Cardinal.
Perhaps it was the defensive scheme put into place by both coaches, but the shooting performance from both sides will surely lead to some extra focus on the skill in practice.
Winner: women’s basketball in the media
Broadcast on ESPN, this top-25 matchup did not disappoint. An upset of the defending national champions, just two games into the regular season and on national television, it made waves throughout social media.
Both Stanford and Texas demonstrated exactly why there’s a push to give greater media coverage to women’s college basketball. The matchup was not only entertaining, as the two teams battled back and forth, but it was also a testament to the sheer talent that is on display in the NCAA right now.
Big games like Sunday’s and national media coverage are bound to get people excited about the new NCAA season.