Zafran: Is it time to hit the panic button?

Jan. 18, 2023, 12:01 a.m.

It finally happened: the dominant, the impenetrable, the unbeatable (sans an early-season overtime loss) Stanford women’s basketball team lost. 

Yes, it was their first time falling to a Pac-12 opponent in 40 such matchups; yes, they were on the tail-end of a road trip; and yes, it was just their third loss in over a calendar year. So why there’s all this fuss about Sunday’s 55-46 loss to USC, a team with a win percentage north of 75%, has me wondering — is it really time to hit the panic button?

The short (and rational, level-headed) answer is no. None of the Cardinal’s key pieces have fallen. They stand atop the Pac-12, albeit now tied with No. 8 Utah and No. 24 Colorado. They still boast a defense that suffocates the paint and dominates the glass. 

But perhaps the loss to USC is indicative of something greater. Now, it wouldn’t be fair to single out just a single game. Sometimes, it’s just not your day. The festivities of a Saturday night are not kind to these games on midday Sunday. But in all seriousness, Stanford shot 31% from the field, 19% from behind the arc and, perhaps most astonishingly, earned zero of its points in transition. Watching the Trojans sink two quarter-ending buzzer beaters and a 3-pointer off the glass in a pivotal moment certainly doesn’t help either. 

However, Sunday’s loss brings to light the very few things that remind us this team is not infallible — and some of these things have been years in the making. When Kiana Williams ‘21 graduated a champion after Stanford’s most recent national championship, head coach Tara VanDerveer likely didn’t realize the departure of her floor general would provide an obstacle she would struggle with two years down the road. 

Last year, despite the Final Four run, the lack of a reliable ball-handler posed major issues throughout the season. When Texas came into Maples Pavilion and forced 20 turnovers en route to an early-season upset, it was clear something had to change. VanDerveer experimented with Lacie Hull ‘22, Anna Wilson ‘22, Jordan Hamilton ‘22 and Haley Jones each assuming lead guard duties, but perhaps never found the long-term solution as it was ultimately an offense in need of a floor general that fell flat to UConn last year. 

Fast forward to this year, and freshman Telana Lepolo has more than stepped up to the challenge. With her 11-assist, zero-turnover debut, it was clear from the get-go that the local kid has potential to fill the void created in Williams’s absence. But it’s also a lot to ask a first-year player to bear such a role, especially for a team with title aspirations.

And as opponents have adjusted to this Stanford team, we’ve seen a sudden change in its offensive output since the turn of the new year. It took nearly four minutes for the Cardinal to get on the board in their win over No. 15 Arizona, and as VanDerveer acknowledged in the postgame presser, it was defense that willed them to victory. The team’s next time out at Cal, they shot just 26% from the field in the first half and faced a legitimate upset bid until seven unanswered points allowed them to escape Berkeley with the win. Things looked bleak last Friday at No. 8 UCLA leading up to the fourth quarter, but a 15-0 run and Cameron Brink’s six blocked shots in the period (yes, you read that right) earned them the victory over what was seemingly the main Pac-12 threat. 

The sheer talent, physicality and defensive presence masked these shortcomings, but it was only a matter of time until it landed Stanford in the loss column. Even on a day when USC shot 27% from the field, the Cardinal couldn’t prevail. 

The offense has stagnated past the point of let-Cam-and-Haley-do-their-thing. With Hannah Jump being face-guarded, Stanford’s lack of perimeter shooting has enabled opposing teams to clog the lanes. Lepolo is the only other player shooting over 40% from deep. The next best shooter, statistically? An 8% dropoff finds Agnes Emma-Nnopu, for whom a third of her 3-pointers this entire year have come the past two games.

The resulting spacing has diminished the Cardinal offense to a series of on-ball screens where the defender can go under and helpside defenders can rotate without worry of their assignment getting open for a jumper. Brink has shown dramatic improvement in the post, showing the ability to turn over both shoulders; but, unless she gets an open look off of a flex cut, the junior has no time to operate down low as teams are digging the moment she touches the ball. 

So what gives? Well, I never thought I’d see the day in which I thought VanDerveer should change her approach, but I also never thought I’d see the day in which you can’t access Meyer Green from Lasuen Mall

In essence, it’s time for the offensive game plan to cater to the team’s strengths and weaknesses. Low field goal percentages are not a product of player performance: Haley Jones has been on a tear since her criticized outing against South Carolina; Hannah Jump has evolved into much more than just a 3-and-D player; Kiki Iriafen continues to show scary flashes of her potential; Cameron Brink has established her standing among the best in all of college basketball. The decreasing marks from the field are a result of poor shot selection, many of which come at the end of the shot clock after the half court offense has led to no opportunities. 

Throw Ashten Prechtel on the perimeter so playmakers can operate. Run Brooke Demetre or Elena Bosgona off screens on the weak side to open up the passing lanes to the low post’s strong side. An evolved offensive set will breed better looks, and the talent of this roster will do the rest.

Another note on Sunday’s game: this was the first time we’ve seen Stanford face real adversity on the scoreboard all year. Even in the loss to South Carolina, an early lead for the Cardinal meant they led for all but one minute in regulation. Sunday was the first time they’ve played from behind since, really, the season-ending loss to UConn last year. As the season goes on, relying on your identity is integral to triumphing adversity. But perhaps this Stanford team hasn’t quite yet established its identity. Wins are wins, but championship teams don’t chase wins, they chase quality wins. 

That all being said, this team is 17-2. They hold the fourth best scoring margin in the country. They will be okay. Is it time to half-heartedly examine them top to bottom because they did the unthinkable in losing a single game? My previous thoughts may have answered that question. But is it time to panic, despite another Pac-12 championship and deep tournament run seemingly imminent? I’ll let you answer that one.

Zach Zafran was the Vol. 262 managing editor for the sports section. Now a senior staff writer, he has previous experience reporting and writing with SFGATE. You can find Zach around campus wearing swim trunks no matter the weather. Follow him on Twitter at @ZachZafran and contact him at sports 'at'

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