December 31, 2018

Non-Conference Confidence

Non-Conference Confidence
Warren Grimes
                Impressive.  That’s the right word to describe Stanford WBB, this season’s edition.  The team ended the non-conference schedule 10-1.  One has to go back 5 years to find a better beginning to the season.  And this team should get better.    
                They lost their one contest to a hot-shooting Gonzaga team, despite an inspiring fourth quarter rally.  Building off that defeat, they went on to defeat two undefeated top 10 teams: Number three ranked Baylor at home; and number nine ranked Tennessee on the road.  The victory in Knoxville was  record setting and an altogether inspiring performance. 
                Stanford scored 95 points, two short of a record for an opponent playing on Tennessee’s home court, and shot 58% from the three point line, a record for a Tennessee visiting opponent.   Two Stanford players set career highs for points in that game: DiJonai Carrington had 33 points and Lacie Hull had 14 on 4-5 shooting from three land.  
                When two Stanford players set career scoring highs in the same game, that’s good news.  The last time I can recall that happening was in Stanford’s upset victory over Maryland in a NCAA regional final during Candice Wiggins’ senior year.  She and JJ Hones both set career highs in that memorable game, and Stanford went on to defeat another number 1 seed, Connecticut, in the semifinals.
                It’s premature to suggest this year’s team will have that sort of success, but not premature to say that the team is, indeed, very, very good.  So why the step up from last year?  Gone are Brittany McPhee and Kaylee Johnson, but the returning players are stepping up.  Four of the five starters are veterans with substantial experience.   
                Fouls aside, Alanna Smith is getting it done on the offensive end, leading the team with just under 19 points per game and shooting more threes than anyone else (and at a remarkable 49% clip).  She’s also the team’s second best rebounder.  And Kiana Williams is continuing her strong point guard performance, leading the team with 50 assists and just under a 2:1 assist turnover ratio.  She has almost as many threes as Smith, and at a commendable .386 rate. 
                A number of vets are back with improved performance.  Maya Dodson’s 16 points against CSUN was the team high, a sign of the team’s blossoming versatility and balance.  She is showing confidence in her jump hook shot.  Dodson leads the team in blocks and is improving her rebounding. 
                But let’s talk about two starting players who have really stepped up this season.  First is DiJonai Carrington.  She has excelled in numerous ways, including moving up to the team’s number one rebounder (on a boards per minute basis, she’s a slight step ahead of Smith).  She’s shooting threes at a .379 clip, but she’s also scoring in the paint on creative drives and put backs.  Her eleven points per game average puts her in third place on the team, but, of late, as in the Tennessee game, she has been performing well above that level. 
                None of this is totally different from last year’s Carrington, but she’s no doubt been asked to step up her performance in McPhee’s absence.  Carrington is a fierce competitor and a chemistry player.  Her strength, athleticism and drive make her critical to Stanford’s success.  Stanford’s ability to stay on pace with Smith out of the game is due in significant part to Carrington, whose versatility makes her a nightmare for opponents to guard.
                Lacie Hull has also been quietly (but not so quiet of late) contributing to this team’s success.  She has started 5 games for the team for good reason.  She plays solid defense, leading the team with 20 steals.  Lexie is steady on the ball, with a 2:1 assist/turnover ratio.  And she can shoot the three ball, at a 40% rate overall.  Of late, she’s been rebounding strongly, with 5 boards against Buffalo and 4 against CSUN.  
                Lacie Hull won the Pac-12 freshman of the week distinction last week.  Well deserved but, I must say, something of a surprise.  At the season’s start, one would have guessed that the first Stanford freshman to get this award would be her twin, Lexie Hull, or perhaps Jenna Brown, the highly ranked point guard recruit.  Lexie Hull, however, has played in only three games because of her injury, and Brown has been making steady progress as a point guard, but has yet to start a game.
                There is something to be said for the fact that Lacie Hull won the freshman of the week competition before either of her more highly touted freshman teammates did.  That suggests that they are all very good players whose development will make Stanford an even better team. 
                Imagine a Stanford team at season’s end with Marta Sniezek, Lexie Hull, and Anna Wilson back, and with a more experienced Jenna Brown.   Some of that may happen as early as this weekend, when USC and UCLA visit Maples.

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