Repeat hopes B-ruined: Women’s basketball gives up double-digit lead, loses to UCLA

March 4, 2023, 5:42 p.m.

Top-seeded Stanford (28-5, 15-4 Pac-12) lost 69-65 to fifth-seeded UCLA (25-8, 11-7 Pac-12), surrendering a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter to miss out on a place in Sunday’s Pac-12 Championship game. 

The Cardinal won a close contest by just 5 points at Maples Pavilion when the two teams last met. But in the early exchanges of this semi-final match-up, Stanford had the better of things. Junior forward Cameron Brink asserted herself in the paint from the opening minute; after it looked like she had nowhere to go, she powered through two defenders and finished. The Bruins then allowed freshman guard Talana Lepolo to shoot from behind the arc, and although she missed her first effort, she stuck the next one to give Stanford the lead. Senior guard Haley Jones found sophomore forward Kiki Iriafen — making her 25th start of the season — at the high post, and she scored.

By contrast, the Bruins were struggling with their shots, missing five straight, one of which was emphatically blocked by Brink. After a Jones jump shot, UCLA finally broke their rut with a 3-pointer. The Bruins’ defense began to improve and Brink’s effort in the paint was ferociously swatted away by forward Lina Sontag. Senior guard Hannah Jump missed her first shot of the night and would remain scoreless over the course of the game, going 0-4 on field goal attempts. However, senior forward Fran Belibi secured the offensive board and put it back up to score. 

UCLA scored a second-chance 3-pointer and Stanford hit a cold spell, going 1-10 on their next 11 field goal attempts. But crucially, the Bruins could not close the gap and a series of miscues — three travel calls and a shot clock violation — as well as a huge Jones block, lessened the impact of Stanford’s three-minute-plus drought. Jones finally delivered on the other end, sinking a jumper from the top of the key to get Stanford back on track. On the last play of the quarter, Brink was unable to get a shot off in time, but nonetheless, Stanford had amassed a 17-8 lead. 

Stanford continued to score early in the second quarter, but UCLA was still hanging on in the contest. Sophomore forward Brooke Demetre scored a three off the bench but Bruins guard Kiki Rice responded with her own. UCLA then collected and-ones on successive plays, resulting in a quick 5 points. Meanwhile, Stanford remained threatening on offense as Jones was swarmed by three defenders and fouled, illustrating the respect she commands from opponents. 

Stanford went on a 13-2 run and as the half approached, UCLA looked to have run out of steam after playing two consecutive days of basketball before this semi-final matchup. Brink entered double digits to lead all scorers but then picked up her second personal and was forced to sit. Even when the Bruins could force openings — Rice faking from deep and driving inside — Belibi recovered tremendously and swatted the ball out of bounds. The Bruins scored a three to close out the half, but Stanford was in control, leading 35-22. 

“We’re taking care of the ball, we just have to eliminate the mistakes,” said head coach Tara VanDerveer. “We have to play smarter [and] not allow open shots.”

Offensively, Stanford was certainly looking strong in the first half. Jones was already 1 point away from her total tally in the quarter-final win against Oregon, and the team committed just four first-half turnovers. In the second half though, Stanford allowed UCLA to get back into the game and once they began to sink shots, the lead — and chance to play in the tournament final on Sunday — started to slip away. 

In the third quarter, the game became more back and forth, which suited the Bruins as they sought to overcome the deficit. Lepolo continued to find herself unguarded and sunk another three, but the Bruins’ shot selection was improving and they cut the Cardinal lead to 10. Meanwhile, Brink continued to amass points from the foul line. 

With just under three minutes left in the quarter, Stanford’s lead rose to 15, but the Cardinal were soon pegged back by another Bruins triple. Rice continued to cause havoc, drawing a shooting foul against Jones on a fast break and converting both shots from the line. UCLA showed impressive defense in the final 90 seconds of the quarter, blocking a Brink layup and securing their defensive rebounds. The quarter ended 50-40 in Stanford’s favor. 

In the fourth quarter, UCLA produced a remarkably improved offensive performance to stun Stanford and reach the Pac-12 tournament final. Stanford’s opponents averaged 32% success in field goal shooting over the course of the season, but in the fourth quarter, the Bruins managed to go 54% from the field. 

The quarter started with a 9-2 Bruins run, culminating in a fastbreak triple which made it a one-possession game. Jones responded with a layup after a good turn away from her defender, but the hot-handed Rice scored on the next possession. A three from the left corner then arced in and UCLA pulled within 2 points of Stanford. Brink then committed a turnover as the defending tournament champions began to feel the pressure. With the opportunity to tie the game, the Bruins missed the shot and junior guard Agnes Emma-Nnopu sunk a 3-pointer in what looked to be a huge momentum shift. 

A pair of fouls from the experienced duo of Jones and Jump jeopardized Stanford’s lead before another Rice jumper completed the comeback. UCLA grew its lead to 3 points before Emma-Nnopu drove along the baseline and scored to set up a tense final minute. Demetre then came up huge with a block against Rice as Stanford looked to steady the ship. From the inbound, the Bruins got the shot off but it slammed against the backboard and was briefly corralled by Brink, but a loose ball ensued. Jones and VanDerveer were adamant that Brink had possession of the ball and that a timeout should be called, but the officials deemed it to be a jump ball. This was a crucial decision, as possession remained with the Bruins. 

The Bruins held a slender lead, forcing Stanford to foul Rice, who widened the gap. Brink was fouled on Stanford’s next possession and continued her perfect record from the line. Then, the game was effectively sealed after another trip to the line for UCLA; although Rice missed her second free throw, Bruins guard Gina Conti made an athletic play to secure the offensive rebound — UCLA’s 13th of the game — and prevent Stanford from having another chance to score. 

A last moment of drama came when freshman guard Indya Nivar was chasing Rice with under 10 seconds left in a 2-point game. The foul was called but VanDerveer was insistent that Rice had carried as the ball almost got away from her. The game ended 69-65 as UCLA reached the Pac-12 tournament final, where they will face seven-seed Washington State. 

“We really just didn’t do what we needed to do in the second half,” VanDerveer said. 

“The Pac-12 is the toughest conference in the country, and we’re proud to have won the regular season,” Jones reflected. “Our season doesn’t end here.” 

The Cardinal will be disappointed to miss out on the chance to defend their title, particularly after No. 3 Utah lost in the first round and No. 20 Colorado lost in the second semi-final. However, with the NCAA tournament right around the corner, Stanford will have the opportunity to right any wrongs and make a deep run at another national championship. 

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