No. 1 seed Stanford (29-6, 15-3 Pac-12) lost 54-49 to No. 8 seed Ole Miss (25-8, 11-5 SEC) in a deflating night at Maples Pavilion. The second round NCAA tournament loss was Stanford’s earliest elimination since 2007 and was a disappointing end to another strong regular season — and likely the last with All-American senior guard and team leader Haley Jones.
The last game of the season at Maples brought an energetic crowd filled to the rafters and it was further buoyed by the return of junior forward Cameron Brink — who missed the tournament opener with an illness — to the starting lineup.
Despite a hostile road environment and a full-strength Stanford lineup, the Rebels were incredibly physical from the moment they won the tip-off. They pressured the Cardinal high up the court and gave away a quick foul when senior guard Hannah Jump was pushed in the back. Freshman guard Talana Lepolo did not shy away from the battle, though, driving into the paint with an exceptional euro step which took two defenders out of the game, but her finish fell short. Early on, Ole Miss effectively utilized screens to create open looks and their lead grew to four. Jones and Brink — the only real bright spots for Stanford offensively on the night — each scored a layup to tie the game.
The game was tight and low-scoring in the opening minutes as both teams stuck to a strong defensive shape. The Rebels tried to work a neat give-and-go but sophomore forward Kiki Iriafen — who was limited to just four minutes of playing time despite starting — did well to tip the ball out of bounds. Ole Miss remained patient, though, and scored on the next possession as the shot clock expired. After a Lepolo layup dropped, the first triple attempt by a Rebel was good at the other end and Stanford trailed once more.
Senior forward Fran Belibi checked in and blocked a shot, before the Rebels traveled to return the ball to Stanford yet again. But another three dropped for Ole Miss and Stanford missed a few layup chances, despite good ball carrying from freshman guard Indya Nivar off the bench. Jump scored Stanford’s first three of the game, but the Cardinal rarely threatened from deep again, going 2-7 on the night. Ole Miss finished the quarter in the ascendancy and could have been further ahead if not for a key block by freshman center Lauren Betts as the clock was expiring. The officials reset the clock and Ole Miss had one last chance to inflict damage but the inbound was mishandled and the quarter ended without incident. Stanford trailed 18-13 after the first quarter.
In the second quarter, Brink scored immediately as Stanford looked to steal back some momentum, but another Rebels three followed. Ole Miss were out-rebounding Stanford on offense, which has been a rare feat this season and underlines their fight. But the Cardinal were aggressive too and Brink was frustrated when she wrestled a ball away from her opponent but it was called a jump ball, much to the home crowd’s chagrin.
Brink admitted in her post-game comments that she was feeling sick throughout the game, but her influence was still noticeable. She smothered three shots in quick succession to bring the crowd to its feet as she refused to allow a scoring chance for the Rebels. An important momentum shift occurred when junior guard Agnes Emma-Nnopu intercepted a pass and had a fast break, but could not score while uncontested, before Ole Miss scored from deep to compound Emma-Nnopu’s miss. The sloppiness continued offensively for Stanford as two Ole Miss players faced injuries, leaving the Cardinal with a five on four chance, but the ball was thrown out of bounds.
After a timeout, the Rebels remained in the ascendancy but could not deliver consistent shots, especially when Brink disrupted the sight-line of the offensive players. Despite the stellar defense, Stanford was in a scoring rut and Ole Miss was delivering blocks and rebounds of its own. The end of the half brought some controversy and underlined Nivar’s inexperience as she heard the shot clock violation and, believing it to be the end of the quarter, took a few steps and traveled, providing the Rebels with the ball once more; their deep shot was close to connecting, but at half-time, Stanford trailed 29-20.
The fans were desperate to see the Cardinal prevail and the noise became even more deafening in the second half as Stanford tried to mount an incredible comeback. Initially, Stanford still exhibited some inertia, exemplified by Jump stumbling and losing possession — one of her four turnovers on the night, which trailed only Jones (five) for most of any player. An intercepted Belibi pass led to a Rebels score as turnovers continued to plague the home side. Indeed, Stanford had more players with a turnover (eight) than it had players with a point (six), illustrating both how the game was lost and the poor offensive output on display.
Brink continued to block shots but Ole Miss scored from a resultant in-bound to grow its lead to double digits. Belibi accidentally clattered into Rebels guard Myah Taylor, who was lying winded on the ground, but play continued because there was no foul. The sequence ended when Brink was fouled, but attention remained on Taylor, who walked off to an ovation after her injury scare which left Ole Miss head coach Yolett Mcphee-McCuin furious that play was not stopped. Brink made both free-throws, going 10-10 on the night overall. At mid-quarter, Ole Miss had four team fouls, giving Stanford hope for a way back into the game. However, a crushing blow followed when senior forward Ashten Prechtel turned the ball over then gave up an and-one shooting foul in a desperate bid to make amends for her initial mistake.
A series of miscues began Stanford’s comeback: first, Nivar was allowed to get her hands on a Rebels pass to force a jump ball and stop a simple layup, before the ball ricocheted off of the Rebels forward’s back from the in-bound, from which Brink collected it. Although Jump missed the three, Brink followed up, shot, got her own rebound and scored on the second time asking. With the crowd roaring and Ole Miss forced into taking a timeout, it seemed fortunes were changing, but the incredibly disciplined and level-headed Rebels team kept calm, drove to the basket and scored.
Taylor — despite not scoring many in the game — was the team’s leader and much of their best play went through her. One example came when the Rebels had virtually no passing options left but found a way to flip it to Taylor, who went under the basket and laid it up, surrounded by outstretched arms. In the dying seconds of the quarter, Lepolo found Jones, who was triple-teamed but still got the shot off and drew a foul. She scored one and the quarter ended 42-35 in Ole Miss’ favor.
In the fourth quarter, Ole Miss sought to slow the game down to preserve its lead while Stanford continued to miss layups and shots. A great play followed when Belibi corralled a bounce pass in the paint, sank to her knees and fed the ball towards Nivar, who was on the left wing; Nivar got to the ball just ahead of her marker, drawing the foul. Jones and Brink were each guilty of doing too much at times as they looked to erase the deficit on their own.
“I saw people trying to do it themselves throughout the whole game,” head coach Tara Vanderveer said. “I think that’s on me, we struggled with [running offense].”
Belibi was physical as ever but gave up a needless foul when she dove for the ball and took out a Rebels player near the Stanford bench. It was Stanford’s fourth team foul in just the fourth minute of the quarter. By mid-quarter, Ole Miss had built on its lead from the start of the fourth as Stanford looked out of ideas. But Brink ended a nearly four minute scoring drought when she spun in the paint and finished. With the defense needing a stop, Stanford triple-teamed Rebels guard Angel Baker, but she fed the ball out to freshman guard Ayana Thompson, whose wide-open three-point shot circled the rim and fell out.
Stanford drove down the court with Jones, but her feed to Nivar was slightly underhit and it came loose, forcing another jump ball which went against the Cardinal. But the defense made up for the turnover with successive stops, and Jones scored despite a double-team to make it a two point game with two minutes remaining. Stanford completed the incredible comeback after it entered the bonus and Brink dispatched both shots from the line. The Rebels missed two shots on the other end before Jones collected the rebound and VanDerveer called timeout. At this point, bolstered by the crowd and reinvigorated by the tied score, it seemed inevitable that Stanford would prevail.
“I thought we battled really well in the second half,” VanDerveer said. “We tied it up and we had an opportunity to win the game.”
“Of course, [at that point] I didn’t think we were going to lose but we did,” Brink added.
As Stanford carried the ball with 40 seconds to play, Jones almost turned it over but Lepolo recovered it. After another timeout, Jones played it to Jump in the right corner; she was tightly guarded and at risk of stepping out of bounds, so she passed the ball back towards Jones, but it was easily intercepted by Rebels forward Madison Scott. Jones fouled her and she made both free throws to restore the lead.
Stanford could not respond as the in-bound found Jones, who lost control and knocked the ball out of play. Ole Miss made two more free throws to pile the pressure on Stanford. What followed was the most calamitous of the three consecutive turnovers, and ultimately the fatal blow to the Cardinal’s season. After VanDerveer’s final timeout, Jones hurled a lob cross-court looking for Brink on the weak side, but it was too weak and fell straight to a defender.
“I guess [the play] wasn’t executed,” Jones said. “I tried to throw a lob but I guess it wasn’t high enough, I’m not sure.”
Stanford got the ball back with mere seconds left, Jump had a good look from deep which could have made things interesting, but it circled the rim and landed with a Rebels player. The game ended 54-49 as Ole Miss punched its ticket to the Sweet 16.
Although Stanford played great defense throughout, the offense was off-kilter from minute one, particularly in a poor second quarter, and Stanford never held a lead in the game. VanDerveer cited a lack of experience as the major reason for the offensive sluggishness. She heaped praise on Nivar and Lepolo, but pointed out that one of last year’s starters at this stage in the NCAA tournament, Lexie Hull ‘22, had 36 points in their victory, and that losing the guard trio of Hull, her twin sister Lacie Hull ‘22 and Anna Wilson ‘22 impacted the team at the tournament level where experience is of heightened importance. She expressed optimism that her core freshmen, including Betts, would be more developed next season.
“I think it was a great experience for our freshmen to be out there,” VanDerveer said. “I don’t think you can ask for a more gritty player than Talana [Lepolo], or Indya [Nivar] or Agnes [Emma-Nnopu], but they don’t have the experience that a Lacey [Hull] or an Anna Wilson had.”
While Stanford’s season ended in disappointment, this was an incredible victory for Ole Miss and its young coach. Mcphee-McCuin and her players were overcome with emotion post-game and spoke of their togetherness and belief guiding them to victory on the night.
“To take down a historical program like Stanford, a coach and a woman that I’ve watched and admired, is incredible,” Mcphee-McCuin said. “The [Stanford] games are on so late, my team rarely sees them play, so they weren’t intimidated.”
“I came to Ole Miss [because] I want to be under a coach that looks like me,” Baker said about her coach. “Coach Yo is a believer, a fighter, and she has done a great job with this program.”
For Stanford, this result is heartbreaking, and student-athletes Jones and Brink had little to say in the post-game press conference, with shock being the prevailing emotion in the room. It was also the last game at Maples for the ‘Funky Four’ group that fans have come to love so much; Prechtel and Jones are planning to play professionally and Belibi is likely to attend a graduate program at Harvard University. VanDerveer did reveal that star shooter Hannah Jump is planning to utilize her COVID-19 year of eligibility and return to the Cardinal next season.