Women’s basketball defeats Arizona to open 2023

Jan. 2, 2023, 10:22 p.m.

No. 2 Stanford women’s basketball (15-1, 3-0 Pac-12) extended its perfect start to the Pac-12 campaign with a 73-57 win over No. 15 Arizona (12-2, 2-1 Pac-12) in a back-and-forth contest at Maples Pavilion on Monday.

After an uncharacteristically slow start in the opening period, Stanford recovered well and held the Wildcats to just seven second-quarter points. The Cardinal capitalized on a sloppy third quarter in which Arizona committed more than a dozen personal fouls, before managing the game expertly in the closing minutes to prevent the Wildcats from mounting a comeback.

The opening minutes of the first quarter saw Stanford fall behind due to a swarming full-court press from Arizona and a string of costly Cardinal errors. Stanford had four turnovers in its opening four possessions, the most egregious of which came when junior forward Cameron Brink and freshman guard Talana Lepolo miscommunicated on an inbound to give Arizona the ball deep in Stanford’s half. Then, amidst intense pressure from the Wildcats, senior guard Haley Jones set a screen to allow Lepolo to escape Stanford’s half, but was adjudged to have fouled the Wildcats defender. Jones received her second personal foul in objection to the first decision, triggering loud boos from a passionate Maples crowd and leaving Stanford’s star player with two personal fouls after just two minutes of play.

Despite failing to score in its opening seven possessions, Stanford’s offense had shown signs of coming to life from its first attack, when sophomore forward Kiki Iriafen threaded a bounce pass through which nearly connected with senior guard Hannah Jump’s cut to the basket. But they continued to be frustrated by the Wildcats’ fast and physical start, with Brink and then Iriafen each failing to convert layup attempts after a pair of rebounds.

To cap off Stanford’s poor start, Jones had a pass intercepted at midcourt and Arizona scored on the fast break to cap a 6-0 start.

“They executed their game plan at the beginning and we were a little flustered by that,” Jones said. “[After that], I guess we just locked in.”

Momentum began to shift when head coach Tara VanDerveer altered her lineup to include just one big player at a time in an attempt to nullify the threat of Arizona’s smaller players. The Cardinal defense held firm as Arizona tried to shoot from within the paint, the pressure ultimately abating when Jones dove to stop the ball from going out, prompting another raucous cheer from the home fans. At the other end of the court, Jump was left wide open and she converted a signature 3-pointer to halve the Cardinal deficit with its first points of the afternoon. 

As Stanford grew into the contest, it began drawing fouls from a careless Wildcats team, which committed 26 personal fouls over the course of the game. Freshman guard Indya Nivar, in for Iriafen, made a clever diversionary run which drew the defender and allowed Brink to drive one-on-one to the basket. She converted the layup and was fouled, finishing the and-one play to draw Stanford level at six points apiece. 

Jones continued to stamp her authority on the game, weaving through the defense to deftly assist an open bank shot for Iriafen. Yet unlike in many of its games this season, Stanford was unable to pull away from its opponent early and Arizona underlined its top-15 credentials by matching Stanford for points in much of the first quarter. Jones’ third assist was another expertly threaded bounce pass, this time to Nivar, who restored Stanford’s one-point lead with a simple finish. 

Stanford’s combination of skill from deep and strength in the paint eventually saw them grow their lead to six, as Jump converted another 3-pointer before Jones drew a foul while shooting from under the basket. The first quarter ended 19-15 in Stanford’s favor. 

The second quarter was a lower-scoring affair, with the Wildcats in particular displaying wayward shooting and facing fierce resistance from a much-improved Stanford defense. Arizona committed a shot-clock violation in its first possession, before traveling in its second. The Wildcats did not score in the first four and a half minutes of the second quarter. 

Senior forward Fran Belibi began what would turn into an incredible performance off the bench with an offensive rebound and score. Freshman center Lauren Betts also contributed with three rebounds in three second-quarter minutes as VanDerveer continued to swap her big players around to create difficult matchups for the Wildcats. Her tactics paid off as Stanford dominated the Wildcats in rebounds 53-23, a key reason for their victory.

Jump scored her third 3-pointer of the night and Stanford grew its advantage to double digits, closing out the half with a 36-22 lead. 

The second half started with a bang as Lepolo scored her first 3-pointer of the game. The sensational freshman, who has started all but three games for the Cardinal this season, was quiet but effective once more today as she demonstrated her ball-handling talent against a highly ranked opponent. 

“It’s so much fun to play with her,” Jones said of Lepolo. “We don’t even think of her as a freshman, she’s doing amazing things.”

Stanford began the quarter on a 5-0 run. Jones recovered a missed three from Brink, pump faked and then scored to complete her 25th double-double as a Stanford player. Then, another milestone was reached by Brink, whose 226th block moved her to second place all-time among Stanford players. 

As the quarter progressed, Arizona committed foul after foul, with Stanford entering the bonus after just five minutes. Arizona’s 13 fouls in the third quarter alone gave Stanford the opportunity to grow an unassailable lead from the free throw line, and ensured that it was a long period teeming with stoppages. Stanford took 34 free throws while Arizona only had nine attempts; this gulf was a telling indication of which side had more influence in the game. 

One moment of particular concern occurred when Belibi committed a shooting foul but was intentionally hit and fell to the ground injured. She walked off and into the locker room to receive further attention, but returned to action soon after. The third quarter ended 57-41 with the Cardinal on top. 

In the fourth quarter, VanDerveer redeployed her starting five as Stanford sought to maintain its comfortable lead. Iriafen scored another basket to ensure she scored at least two points in every quarter of the game. 

Belibi’s prior injury did not slow her immense second-half production, as she returned to the court, exploding towards the basket and scoring whilst drawing a foul. A huge cheer erupted around Maples as she secured her first points since her nasty fall. Belibi’s rebounding was even more impressive as she refused to shy away from the physical battles even after taking such a big hit. 

Jones continued to shine, scoring after a give-and-go with senior forward Ashton Prechtel, who lifted a pass over three static defenders as Jones darted unmarked to the basket. In the game’s final minute, Prechtel’s missed 3-point attempt was snatched out of the air by none other than Belibi, who converted yet another rebound. Belibi finished with a double-double, her first of the season and a great response after playing just five minutes in Sunday’s game against Arizona State. 

“Her offense was fabulous,” VanDerveer said of Belibi. “She’s a good example for our team of someone who is ready to play.”

The game ended 73-57 in Stanford’s favor. Despite a subpar afternoon from Stanford’s typically productive scorers — Brink, Jones and Jump shot a combined 12-for-40 — they continued to draw fouls and dominate the boards. This allowed them to grind out points and keep the ball, frustrating Arizona who started the game the better side, but faded thereafter. Stanford and Utah are the only remaining undefeated teams in the Pac-12. 

“Not pretty, but gritty,” VanDerveer said, summing up her team’s performance. “I’m really proud of our team for battling, our defense really stepped up to hold them to 57 points.”

Next up for the Cardinal is the away fixture at California (10-4, 1-2 Pac-12) on Sunday at 4 p.m. PT.

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