Axe to the Heart: Stanford defeats Sacred Heart in NCAA Tournament opener 

March 18, 2023, 6:24 p.m.

One-seed Stanford women’s basketball (28-5, 15-3 Pac-12) opened the NCAA tournament with a dominant 92-49 win over 16-seed Sacred Heart (19-14, 12-4 NEC). After a tight first quarter, the Cardinal pulled away with an impressive mix of stifling defensive physicality and relentless offense, as five players reached double-digit points. 

The lead-up to the game was dominated by the news that one of Stanford’s All-Americans, junior forward Cameron Brink, was out with a non-COVID illness. The 2022 Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year leads Stanford in scoring (14.9 points per game) and rebounding (9.5 boards per game) this season, and is an integral leader and presence for the team. Head coach Tara VanDerveer responded by giving senior forward Fran Belibi her first start of the season, while also allotting more minutes to freshman center Lauren Betts, underlining Stanford’s size.

“I didn’t want to tell [my players] that [Brink’s] sub was a 6’7 freshman,” said Pioneers head coach Jessica Mannetti in reference to Stanford’s depth. “[But] they figured that out quickly.”

The two teams were well-matched in the first quarter as the Pioneers made a physical start. Belibi was battling for rebounds but Stanford’s shots were not converting early. However, they nullified the Pioneers’ offense in the opening possessions and the game was low-scoring midway through the quarter. The Cardinal’a first points came from a Belibi layup, but impressive Pioneer freshman Ny’ceara Pryor scored either side of Belibi’s basket to give the Pioneers a slim advantage. Senior guard Haley Jones air-balled a layup, as Stanford had not yet found its rhythm.

Sophomore forward Kiki Iriafen halved the deficit with a decisive finish as she received the ball from freshman guard Talana Lepolo – who had seven assists in her first tournament game – and put it straight up to score. Betts checked in and began her impressive afternoon – making two instant plays off the bench. First, she disrupted the attacker to force a wayward shot, before receiving the ball in the paint and flipping it in without the aid of the glass. Throughout the game, Betts was a two-way threat and finished with 10 points, seven rebounds and a team-leading three blocks.

“Lauren had a great game,” VanDeerveer said.

“All of our practices are super competitive and definitely put me in this position [to perform],” Betts added.

The Pioneers sunk the first three-point attempt of the game before senior guard Hannah Jump missed one on the next play. Pryor continued to cause problems for Stanford in the first quarter as she crossed up junior guard Agnes Emma-Nnopu and – although Betts blocked her lay-up – Emma-Nnopu committed a foul simultaneously.

After a media timeout, Jump got going with a shot from behind the arc and the Pioneers missed a shot on their subsequent possession, allowing Jones to drive the length of the court and score to give Stanford its first lead. Freshman guard Indya Nivar stole the ball from Pryor and scored a midrange jumper at the other end. But almost immediately the game was tied as Sacred Heart scored a triple, marking the end to a rapid exchange of points by both sides.

The Cardinal grew the lead to five in the last minutes of the first quarter and would not look back. Jones provided the spark with a reverse layup after a behind-the-back dribble. Stanford’s last possession of the quarter threw the crowd into pandemonium as Lepolo picked out Jump, who feigned a return pass, dribbled inside and knocked down the triple. The Pioneers got a shot off in time but it hit the rim timidly; the quarter ended with the Cardinal on top, 23-18.

“[The first quarter] will sit with me for the rest of my life,” Pryor said. “We stayed with Stanford.”

In the second quarter, the Cardinal outscored the Pioneers 22-8 and took a commanding lead into half-time. Lepolo and Nivar played together as Stanford deployed just one forward to begin the quarter. Jones was adjudged to have fouled Pryor on a play that appeared to be a clean block; boos rained down from the Maples crowd and the freshman missed both free throws. After nearly three minutes, Sacred Heart sank its first points of the quarter but Lepolo fed Jones to score twice in 14 seconds off Pioneer turnovers. Stanford opened the quarter on a 9-2 run and attained its first double-digit lead of the game.

The Pioneers saw more shots miss and could not corral a rebound as the Cardinal went for the kill. Belibi continued her fine first-quarter performance, frequently receiving the ball at the low post position, spinning or pump-faking to ward off her defender, before scoring off the glass. She also chipped in with a block and a steal and was substituted to a huge round of applause. Betts had similar success, as the Pioneers found it difficult to match Stanford’s height and skill in the paint.

“It was difficult obviously,” said Sacred Heart forward Kelsey Wood. “They have five inches on me, so in the NEC, we’re not really used to seeing that.” 

With six seconds left in the quarter, Lepolo carried the ball forward for the Cardinal. She appeared to have no time to make a decision but she laid the ball to Jump, who did the rest, arcing a perfect three which swished in as the buzzer sounded. Jump’s shot broke the record for the most three-pointers scored in a season in Stanford history. The Cardinal led comfortably 45-26 at halftime.

In the third quarter, Stanford utilized its depth to continue placing pressure on the Pioneers. Jump continued sinking threes, finishing the night 4-7. Stanford deployed a full-court press as well, and the Pioneers had fewer and fewer scoring opportunities. Their struggles were compounded as Pryor lost some of her first-half spark and missed a few shots. After a collision with Jones, Pryor picked up her fourth personal foul and was forced to sit for much of the second half. Successive steals by Emma-Nnopu and Belibi underlined Stanford’s continued aggressive play, even with a large lead. The score after the third quarter was 73-37 in Stanford’s favor.

In the fourth quarter, Stanford saw the game out efficiently. Sophomore guard Elena Bosgana played well off the bench, reaching nine points in just 14 minutes of action. VanDerveer rested key players like Jump and Jones, who typically are stretched to more than 35 minutes a game.

“[I want to] rest her more and keep her fresh so she has the legs for her shot,” VanDerveer said of Jump. “She looked very confident out there.”

Senior forward Ashten Prechtel got more minutes in the fourth quarter and scored as the Cardinal hit 90 points for just the second time in 2023. It was also encouraging to see minutes for young freshmen guards Stavi Papadaki and Lauren Green, the latter carrying the ball in the final minutes. The game ended 92-49, as Stanford moved on to the next round.

The Cardinal will next face eight-seed Ole Miss (24-8, 11-5 SEC) in the Round of 32 at Maples Pavilion. Tip-off is set for 6:30 p.m. PT on Sunday.

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