By Warren Grimes
There was no dominant player. Erica McCall led the Stanford team in points and boards per game at a modest 14.4 and 9, respectively. Brittany McPhee and Karlie Samuelson were consistent contributors averaging 12 or more points per game. Late in the season, Alanna Smith came on strong and began averaging double digits. Still, this was fundamentally a team whose whole was greater than the sum of its parts. They liked playing together, they were resilient, they were focused, and they made the Final Four.
Of the thirteen Stanford teams that have made the Final Four, this may have been the least likely.
True, Stanford had made it to the Elite Eight last year with most of the same players (Of last year’s starters, only Lili Thompson was missing). True, Stanford had three well established seniors who had been major contributors. True, there were some exciting new freshmen on the team. True, the team had a Hall of Fame coach.
But there were issues. Stanford had played inconsistently the previous year, struggling to a third place finish in the conference. There was no consistent go-to player on the team; no consensus All-American. The point guard position was still somewhat unsettled, with Roberson and Sniezek showing promise but with neither holding a lock on the position. Some of the promising freshmen had injury issues. Early in the season, Stanford lost a home game to Gonzaga, a good but not great team.
But the Stanford team came together to produce a 32-6 season. They did this because they complemented one another’s strengths. They did this because they worked hard and communicated on defense. They did this because, when one player was down, others stepped up. They did this because, when it came to blocking shots, this was among the best teams in Stanford history.
Erica McCall led the way with 63 blocks, including that memorable stuff in the last 2 seconds of the Notre Dame game. But McCall had lots of help from Alanna Smith (61 blocks). Kaylee Johnson, Brittany McPhee and Nadia Fingall were also proficient shot blockers.
On a per minute basis, the shot blocking award goes to Alanna Smith. She blocked shots at .0829 per minute, well above McCall’s .0516 per minute rate. Playing an average of just 19.3 minutes per game, Smith tied Jayne Appel for 8th place in the race for the highest number of blocks per season. That’s an achievement. If Alanna can avoid foul trouble, she could be a formidable shot blocker next season.
So why is this 6'3" Australian so proficient in blocking shots? Alanna is tall and athletic; she also seems to have the gift of a long reach. In the conference tournament final against OSU, Alanna had no difficulty blocking a shot by OSU’s 6'5" Marie Gulich.
When it comes to rebounding, McCall and Smith were essentially tied in the rebounds per minute category. Decisively ahead of both (at .34 boards/minute compared to McCall and Smith at .28/minute) was Kaylee Johnson. That should not surprise those that have watched Johnson over the past three years. She set rebounding records as a freshman. If her offensive production can step up next year, Kaylee’s additional minutes on the floor could set rebounding records.
One has to bow to the three seniors who set the tone for the rest of the team. Karlie Samuelson’s injury in the semifinal game could have been the difference maker. Erica McCall’s block in the last seconds of the regional final was the difference maker. These two players were deservedly named as honorable mention All Americans. Briana Roberson averaged 6.5 points and 2.5 assists per game. All three of these seniors played smart, played focused, and played hard. Leading by example, they were the best kind of team leaders.
Resilience will, by itself, commend this team as one of the best. This season, getting ahead of Stanford, more often then not, just made Stanford mad.
Stanford came back against Oregon in the Pac 12 tournament semifinal.
They did it again against OSU in the Pac 12 tournament final.
They did it again against New Mexico State in the 1st round NCAA game.
They did it again against Texas in the Elite Eight game.
But the season’s two most memorable comebacks were:
- Overcoming an 18-point first half deficit and defeating UW in Seattle (this, late in the conference season); and
- Overcoming a 16-point deficit at the beginning of the third quarter, and taking down Notre Dame in the regional final.
Thank you to the seniors, thank you to the team, for those great memories.