During Halloweekend, Stanford women’s basketball enthusiasts were ghoulishly excited to see the first scrimmage of the year, and head coach Tara VanDerveer and her squad – ranked No. 2 in the country – did not disappoint. The women’s basketball team is on a mission: to win the NCAA championship for the second time in three years.
This will no doubt be challenging for the new-look Stanford team, but they are up for the daunting challenge.
“It is going to be a great year,” remarked senior forward and team captain Fran Belibi.
This season is an exciting opportunity for the Cardinal, who feel disappointed after last year’s Final Four loss to 2-seed UConn. For many, especially the “funky four” as Belibi calls her senior class, this loss will motivate the team throughout the year.
“Up until last year when we lost in the Final Four,” Belibi said, ‘’we had only known what it was like to win. So it was disappointing for us because to go out on a loss is really something you never want to do for yourself, seniors and the team.”
Losing is never easy, especially for a team that has been so dominant over VanDerveer’s tenure in Palo Alto. But, the season must commence, and the team plans to use this disappointing feeling to invigorate their spirit and play throughout the season.
The most prominent challenge starting the season is with the departed players. Stanford lost three starting guards from last year in Lacie Hull ‘22, twin — and No. 6 pick in the WNBA draft — Lexie Hull ‘22 and 2021 Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Anna Wilson ‘22. Replacing 60% of the starting lineup is immensely difficult, especially when all the players play small.
“We lost a lot of seniors last year,” Belibi said. “And a lot of key contributors to the team. We have had a lot of people really stepping up in leadership and on the court.”
Luckily for Stanford, two starters return from last year as stalwarts and leaders: junior forward Cameron Brink, the 2022 Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year and co-Pac-12 Player of the Year, as well as senior guard Haley Jones, the other 2022 co-Pac-12 Player of the Year. Noting this, as well as other returning leadership, such as Belibi, the Stanford offense will be looking to switch to a more forward-heavy approach.
“This offense is a little bit easier to learn,” Belibi remarked. “Which is good because we have a lot of freshmen.”
The projected Stanford starters as of now are Jones, senior guard Hannah Jump, junior guard Agnes Emma-Nnopu, Brink and sophomore forward Kiki Iriafen. Leading the bench are sophomore guard Elena Bosgana and senior forward Ashten Prechtel – who is expected to see some playing time, especially early in the season while Belibi recovers from injury.
This year, the Cardinal has one of the most balanced rosters in the country, with many noting it for the number of players with accolades. Both Jones and Brink received preseason All-Pac-12 and All-American honors. In addition, Brink has been named to the 2023 Katrine McClain Award Watchlist and Jones has been named to the Cheryl Miller Award Watchlist. Belibi and former No. 1 overall recruit freshman center Lauren Betts were named to the Lisa Leslie Award Watchlist.
The new-look team is much younger than last year’s roster, averaging almost one whole class year younger than the 2021-21 roster. However, this hardly seems like a problem, considering how the team has taken to it.
“We are very bottom-heavy this year in regards to classes,” Belibi said. “This means there is a lot of learning and teaching going on.”
Despite losing much of last year’s leadership, the new class of freshmen seems to be making up for this loss. Leading the way is Betts, the No. 1 overall recruit for this year. Her six-foot-eight-inch frame is impressive for NCAAW standards, in fact, she is only one inch shorter than the tallest NCAAW player of all time, Baylor’s Brittney Griner.
The freshmen class also includes guards Talana Lepolo, Indya Nivar, Stavi Papadaki and Lauren Green. This group fills the guard depth that the former seniors left after moving on from Stanford, making up four out of nine total guards on the team.
Despite all the new faces, the team feels confident taking the court this season as a cohesive unit. After all, as Belibi puts it, “once you step on the court you are no longer a freshman. It is time to play.”
With the new offense, it will take time to adjust, however, players are confident that they will learn quickly and learn the new system well. With many new pieces on the team, it is important to be able to understand schematics well and timely, as well as build a sense of camaraderie among the new players.
“Being able to step into an offense that is a little easier to learn, and a little more simplistic has been really nice,” Belibi said. “For example, me and Kiki [Iriafen] did not get to play a whole lot together last year, but this offense allows us to do that. It is a lot of fun playing with all the post-players.”
With the new-look offense, many underclassman players have seen a lot of improvement over the off-season and are looking to be key contributors to this new offense.
“Look out for the bigs,” Belibi said. “Watch out for us, because we are going to do great.”
Especially with the move to a more paint-scoring offense, look for younger bigs like sophomore forwards Iriafen and Brooke Demetre to increase in playing time.
“When I watch [the underclassmen], I think to myself, ‘all of these people are so good at basketball’” Belibi remarked. “The sophomores have all really improved. I think Kiki and Brooke [Demetre] especially have been eating it up.”
Challenges This Season
Besides the obvious challenges of a new offense and a younger, less experienced roster, the Cardinal are expected to face many challenges this coming season. One of the first is on Nov. 20, when Stanford takes on their avian foe and reigning NCAA Champion No. 1 South Carolina. Last year, the Gamecocks beat the Cardinal in South Carolina, however, this year Stanford gets them on their home turf in Palo Alto, Calif. After the loss last year, Stanford proceeded to go on a 26-game win streak: going perfect in conference play, winning the Pac-12 Tournament and making it to the Final Four.
In a clash between the two titans, the Cardinal’s new offense will be on full display against senior forward and 2022 NCAA Player and Defensive Player of the Year Aliyah Boston. Last year, South Carolina ran the table in the NCAA tournament and dominated almost all of their games – thanks to their stout defense.
While this will be a hard match for Stanford, players are optimistic and are eager to show who deserves that No. 1 ranking.
The season as a whole starts light against San Diego State on Monday, Nov. 7. Between then and South Carolina, there will be four games against non-ranked opponents. After the fall quarter ends, the Cardinal will play two more tough non-conference games, against No. 5 Tennessee and No. 21 Creighton on Dec. 18 and 20, respectively.
In conference play, No. 19 Arizona, No. 20 Oregon, Utah and UCLA will pose the biggest challenges for the Cardinal. However, considering the last time Stanford lost to a Pac-12 opponent was Jan. 22, 2021, to UCLA (which was ranked No. 6 at the time), these match-ups should hopefully go smoothly for the Cardinal.
This season will be interesting for sure. With many new variables contrasted by the tenured VanDerveer, it will surely be an amazing season for the Cardinal. There is a lot to prove and expectations to be met. It should be a great season, with many players looking to prove their leadership and ability, ultimately leading to great play and the hope of winning a national championship.