Pac-12 Women’s Basketball Tournament preview: Cardinal look to repeat

March 3, 2022, 11:23 a.m.

Riding a 17-game win streak, No. 2 Stanford women’s basketball (25-3, 16-0 Pac-12) is set to begin the Pac-12 Tournament on Thursday as the top seed. After its first perfect conference regular season since 2012, the Cardinal earned the Pac-12 regular season championship — their 20th in program history and second straight.

In Las Vegas, the team will look to add to this season’s already impressive resume as it pursues its second straight Pac-12 tournament title.

The defending national champions’ season has been nothing short of amazing. Prior to their dominant conference play, the Cardinal started the year off 8-3 in non-conference play, highlighted by wins versus then-No. 4 Indiana (19-7, 11-5 Big Ten), then-No. 2 Maryland (21-7, 13-4 Big Ten) and then-No. 7 Tennessee (22-7, 11-5 SEC). 

Stanford’s early games revealed strengths and weaknesses that have defined its season. Over the course of the first 11 games, sophomore Cameron Brink and junior Haley Jones led the way, something that would hold true for the remainder of the year as well. Brink posted multiple 20-point outings, highlighted by a 21-point, 22-rebound performance in a narrow win over Indiana.

Jones, the reigning Final Four Most Outstanding Player, helped navigate the new-look offense in the absence of former Cardinal point guard Kiana Williams ‘21, who was drafted to the Seattle Storm in the WNBA draft after last year’s season. Jones’ early season was epitomized in her play versus Portland (18-9, 8-7 WCC), where she did it all: 17 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists, good for the first triple-double by a Stanford player since 2002. 

With Williams gone though, Stanford no longer has a true floor general leading the charge — and at times this was very evident. In their first loss of the season, the Cardinal fell to then-No. 25 Texas (21-6, 12-5 Big 12) at home. Throughout much of the game, the Longhorns lined up in the full-court press, leading to numerous turnovers and exploiting Stanford’s need for a strong ball handler.

Stanford’s most important game of its non-conference schedule came last, where this weakness was again exposed. In a battle of the college basketball giants, No. 2 Stanford versus No. 1 South Carolina (27-1, 15-1 SEC), the Cardinal surrendered an early lead in Columbia, SC. due to intense defensive pressure. The Gamecocks prevailed 65-61.

However, since then, Stanford has put the college basketball world on notice with 17 straight wins. Its performances in the Pac-12 were nothing short of dominant. Dating back to January 2021, the Cardinal have won 31 straight contests against Pac-12 opponents, postseason included. 

Until their final three games of the regular season arrived, only two of their conference games were decided by less than 10 points — one against then-No. 22 Colorado (21-7, 9-7 Pac-12), who was the last undefeated program in Division I women’s basketball at the time, and the other versus then-No. 8 Arizona (20-6, 10-6 Pac-12), which was a competitive rematch of last year’s national championship game.

But, the last three games of Stanford’s season have been a different story. Despite strong showings from sixth-year guard Anna Wilson and junior guard Hannah Jump, both of whom have come into their own this year, it’s almost as though the Cardinal have eased up on the gas pedal.

In its matchup at Oregon (19-19, 11-6 Pac-12), Stanford faced a double-digit deficit in the fourth quarter. Only with the heroic play of Jones were the Cardinal able to walk away victorious 66-62. In its next outing, Stanford came out flat versus Washington State (19-9, 11-6 Pac-12), at least according to head coach Tara VanDerveer.

“We didn’t have the same energy, to be honest, and we were a little flat,” VanDerveer said. Stanford’s 61-54 win wasn’t the prettiest, as the team recorded 17 turnovers on the day. Nonetheless, this was the program’s 71st victory against the Cougars — in as many contests — which speaks volumes about the team’s success historically. 

The last time the Cardinal took the floor however, inspires some feelings of concern heading into the Pac-12 Tournament. Perhaps it was because there was little on the line? Perhaps it was just one of those Sunday mornings? Whatever it was, Stanford welcomed last-place Washington (7-16, 2-12 Pac-12) to Maples Pavilion, where its 63-56 victory was not what was expected.

The Huskies held a lead until the final minute, which was surprising given their best player, Haley Van Dyke, only had five points on the day. 

Despite this recent play, Stanford still remains the heavy favorite in the tournament. Boasting the Pac-12 Player of the Year in Jones, the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year in Brink, an All-Pac-12 selection in senior guard Lexie Hull and an All-Defensive Team honoree in Wilson, the Cardinal have the talent to take the title. And it certainly helps that this year’s Pac-12 Coach of the Year, the winningest coach in women’s college basketball history, Tara VanDerveer is leading the team on the sidelines.

So who, if anyone, is going to upset the Cardinal? The first team to get a chance will be No. 8 seed Oregon State (14-12, 6-9 Pac-12). The Beavers won their opening-round contest on Wednesday versus Arizona State (12-14, 4-9 Pac-12), 59-54. While Stanford handedly won both matchups this season versus Oregon State by scores of 82-59 and 87-63, the games were closer than the final score indicates.

“We’ve had great stretches in both games,” said Oregon State head coach Scott Rueck. “Down [at Stanford] we scored 25 in the first quarter. At our place it was a great game up until the fourth when they pulled away.”

Outside of the Beavers, several other teams serve as legitimate threats to dethrone Stanford. If the Cardinal beats Oregon State, they would go on to play the winner of No. 5 seed Colorado/No. 4 seed Arizona. 

Both of Stanford’s matchups versus the Buffaloes were intense games. After only an eight-point first quarter, the Cardinal had to use a second half comeback to propel themselves on top before ultimately winning 60-52. The second matchup was more of the same, as Stanford faced a deficit entering halftime. 

As for Arizona, it goes without saying that it is a legitimate team. The Wildcats undoubtedly have a target on Stanford’s back following their bout in the national championship game last year. In the teams’ only contest this year, it took a 25-point, 15-rebound performance from Brink as well as six 3-pointers from sophomore guard Jana Van Gytenbeek to win the back-and-forth battle 75-69. If there’s a team to look out for, it’s Arizona.

On the other side of the bracket, No. 3 seed Washington State could make things interesting. The Cougars have had a historic season, finishing tied for second in the conference after winning nine of their last 12 and setting a program record for single-season Pac-12 wins in the process. 

And of course, No. 2 seed Oregon can’t be ignored either. Historically, the Ducks and Cardinal have gone back and forth in the Pac-12 postseason, as the two teams have alternated as Pac-12 Tournament champions in each of the last five seasons. In their last matchup, the Ducks had Stanford on the ropes as much as any team had since South Carolina. Additionally, it’s worth noting that it took a career-best 33-point performance from Hull to defeat Oregon in their first go-around.

As the Cardinal begin their efforts to claim another Pac-12 Tournament title, the odds are in their favor. But it may not be as easy as it looks on paper.

Before we get ahead of ourselves, Stanford will have to take on Oregon State. Tip-off is set for 2:30 p.m. PT on Thursday in Las Vegas.

Zach Zafran is the managing editor of the sports section. He is a sophomore from the Bay Area, who is majoring in Mathematical and Computational Science. Zach has previous experience reporting and writing with SFGATE, and you can find him around campus wearing swim trunks no matter the weather. Follow him on Twitter at @ZachZafran and contact him at sports 'at' stanforddaily.com.

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