April 03, 2022

Stanford: Final Four One-Possession Games

Warren Grimes

Sports fans are tribal, passionate, and sometimes unforgiving.   This spring, 66 women’s hoops teams were chosen for the NCAA tournament.  That’s an honor – to be among the elite in the sport – roughly the best 66 in the sport.  But 65 of these teams ended with a loss and disappointed fans.  Even among the Final Four teams, three of them had to deal with fans disappointed by a loss.    

Stanford fans had a special team to support, one that had won over fans with their heart, talent, and resilience.  But Stanford fell two days and two wins short of a repeat national title.  I was disappointed, but not to the point of overlooking what this team accomplished.   

Stanford was the national champion a year earlier.

Stanford had completed an undefeated conference season.

Stanford won the Pac-12 tournament.

Stanford won the Spokane Regional on the way to the Final Four. 

Stanford has played three Final Four games in the past 2 years.  All three were one possession games – games in which one possession could have altered the result.  Stanford won two out of three of these games.  Last year, Stanford won two games by one point in the championship run.  This year’s loss to U Conn was also a one possession game.  That in itself was a major accomplishment.  With 1:26 left on the game clock, Stanford trailed by 8 points and had only 44 – a season low in terms of points scored. 

Stanford went on to score 14 points in the final 86 seconds, putting fear in the hearts of Geno and his lot.  Haley Jones scored six of these, Lacie Hull and Ashten Prechtel added three pointers, and Brink added two.  Stanford’s productive spurt was helped along by Connecticut turnovers (the Huskies had 8 turns in the 4th quarter).  Twice during the final 86 seconds Stanford closed to within 2 points.  With 24.4 seconds left, Jones converted an acrobatic shot in the paint to close the gap to 58-56.  Then, after U Conn guard Azzi Fudd was fouled and converted two free throws, Stanford called time.  With 18.4 seconds on the clock, Jones inbounded from the sidelines directly to Cameron Brink standing in the paint near the hoop.  Brink quickly converted to close to 60-58.

Give the Huskies credit.  U Conn converted 9 of 10 free throws during the final 86 seconds to seal the deal.  For the game, they also out rebounded Stanford 46 to 37, helped along by Stanford’s terrible shooting percentage.  As has become a pattern in Final Four games, intense defense limited scoring and shooting percentages for both teams.

So which team has the best final four record over the past two years?  South Carolina has a semi-final appearance and a championship.  Stanford can match this with its own championship and semi-final appearance.  U Conn?  They fall behind with one semi-final and one final game appearance.  Sorry Geno.

So Stanford, like every other team in the Division IA, can look forward to next year.  But before we turn our gaze to the future, I doff my hat to this wonderful 2021-22 team that brought so much fun to Stanford fans.

March 28, 2022

Texas Two-Step: For Stanford, the Second Step's the Best

 Warren Grimes

Stanford Women’s Hoops faced Texas twice this year.  Stanford lost in November, but won in the Elite Eight when it mattered most.  Hard to script it better.  The revenge came in Sunday’s hard fought regional final.  The game was physical and intense from start to finish.

But it was almost a déjà vu.

Stanford had 20 turnovers in the November game.  Had to improve, right? 

Sorry, same 20 turns in the March game.

Stanford converted only 4 of 27 three point attempts (14.8%) in the November game.  That couldn’t happen again, right? 

Actually, it didn’t happen again, but in some ways got worse.  In the Elite Eight, Stanford converted one less shot and barely improved the percentage -- only 3 of 17 three point attempts (17.6%).

Despite these miserables, Stanford won a hard fought game. 

Stanford won because the team defended better and held the Longhorns to just 50 points, 11 fewer than Texas scored in the November game. 

Stanford won because, despite the 20 turns, Stanford gave up ZERO fast break points to Texas (compared to 12 fast break points in the November contest).

Stanford won because, despite the turns, they improved assist/turnover ratio from a miserable .35 in November to a markedly less miserable .70 in March.

Stanford won because Lexie Hull defended with focus and intensity while scoring 20 points, including a key fourth quarter three-point shot.

Stanford won because Cameron Brink swatted away 6 Texas shots, limiting Texas to 16 points in the paint (compared to 24 points in the November contest).

Stanford won because Haley Jones had a double-double (18 points and 12 boards) and converted 10 of 11 free throws.

Stanford won because Lacie Hull played 40 minutes, scoring no points but contributing intense defense, a positive assist/turnover ratio (4/3) along with 5 boards and 2 blocks. 

Stanford won because Fran Belibi came off the bench and grabbed 11 boards and added 7 points.

Arguably, Stanford, of the #1 regional seeds, faced the most challenging opponent.  Yes, the North Carolina/Connecticut game put two top teams against one another, but neither of those teams could match the Texas 14-game winning streak. 

Getting to the final four saves a bit of face for the Pac-12 Conference.  The Conference tournament record was, uhm, . . . awful.  Of the six Pac-12 teams in the tournament, three were upset in the first round (Colorado, Oregon, and Washington State).  Fourth seeded Arizona was upset in the second round by fifth seeded North Carolina.  That meant that only one Pac-12 school (other than Stanford) played to seed (Seventh seeded Utah lost in the second round to second seeded Texas).

Another measure of the status of the Pac-12 conference is the recruiting successes for next year’s incoming class.  Schools like UCLA, Oregon State, and USC that did not make the tournament all have very strong incoming classes.  The Conference has great potential, but it will have to prove it in the coming seasons.

Meanwhile, Stanford’s very special team has at least one more game to play.  The talent and chemistry of this year’s team make it unique.  Coach VanDerveer was quoted as saying that making the Final Four is always special, but added a superlative for this year’s squad.  

 I’m looking forward to watching this gifted team this weekend.

March 07, 2022

A Better and More Balanced Team - Appreciating Stanford Excellence

 Warren Grimes

During her press conference after the Pac 12 tournament championship game, Utah Coach Lynne Roberts declared the Stanford team “better” and “more balanced” than last year’s NCAA championship-winning team.  According to Roberts, when the shot clock is winding down, opposing coaches don’t know who will be given the ball.  The loss of Kiana Williams, she conceded, was a big loss for Stanford, but the team has now learned to more than compensate for that loss.

It's difficult to argue with Roberts.  While Haley Jones may be the top “go to” player in a crunch, any player on the floor could be counted on to convert when it matters.  That includes the five starters and at least another five who saw substantial minutes during the Pac-12 tournament (Belibi, Jump, Iriafen, Prechtel, and Emma-Nnopu). 

This year’s team is exceptional for running off 20 non-stop victories since the beginning of January. This includes the entire conference season and the conference tournament.  It is a remarkable achievement, something last year’s team could not muster.  All the while, Stanford has shown steady improvement throughout the season.

Early in the season, a Stanford vulnerability was bringing the ball up the court.  Turnovers generated easy baskets for opponents.  The team, however, did not stand still.  Here are three measures of the team’s assist turnover ratio as the season progressed.

A/T for all games: 1.16

A/T for conference games: 1.22

A/T for the three Pac-12 tournament games: 1.91

Using a similar metric, one can chart the progress of the team in other offensive and defensive areas.

                                                      All Games           Conference Only       3 tourn. Games

Opp Total Points/Game              56.9                        58.67                                     45.67

Scoring Margin                           +16.9                     +18                                         +21.33

3 point FG %                                35%                        36.7%                                    46%

3 point FG % defense                 32%                        34.1%                                    29.23%

Field Goal % defense                 35%                        36.8%                                    30.77%

These statistics do not always flow in a positive direction.  During conference play, Stanford managed to up its free throw percentage to 72.6%, only to see it drop to 69% for the three tournament games.  Still, the overall picture painted by these statistics is a positive one for Stanford.  In the Pac-12 tournament, the team showed the ability to up its game for single elimination, post-season play.  Each of Stanford’s three opponents had won at least one previous matchup (Utah had won three in a row).  Stanford achieved its three-game statistical superiority against very good teams.

What the statistics don’t show is the chemistry that this team possesses.  With the Hulls leading the way, there is a special edge to this team that sets it apart from other Stanford teams.  These players play for each other, and do it with unprecedented focus, talent, and resilience.  Stanford will be a difficult out – actually a very difficult out -- for any opponent in the NCAA tournament. 

February 27, 2022

Dominant Defense and Conference Awards

 

Dominant Defense and Conference Awards

Warren Grimes

Stanford successfully finished its undefeated conference season, not in dominating fashion – but with dominant defense.  Both Washington schools brought their best and held Stanford to seven point  victory margins (WSU lost 54-61 and Washington went down 56-63).

Of the two games, Washington, with only two conference wins but playing with late-season attitude, was the bigger challenge.  In the first half, the Huskies shot 50% overall and 44% from distance, holding a two point lead at half time.  Meanwhile, Stanford struggled mightily with a full game 34% shooting percentage (21% from distance) -- this from a team that had the conference’s highest field goal shooting percentage – and the highest three point shooting percentage.  Reliable three point shooters had off days (Jump was 2-6 from distance and Prechtel was 0-3). 

No excuses, but one partial explanation is that Washington made a high percentage of its shots, meaning that transition opportunities off of rebounds were fewer than average.  Stanford still managed 20 fast break points, but few of these were three point shots. 

Still trailing by one with roughly one minute on the clock, Anna Wilson stole a sidelines inbound pass, converting the layup to put Stanford back in front to stay.  Wilson and her mates built that lead to a seven point margin thanks to free throws.  Stanford did it with defense, holding Washington to 10 points in the fourth quarter while scoring 16 of their own, this despite missing all four of the team’s three point attempts in the quarter.

Entering the tournament with a perfect conference record, Stanford can expect to receive its share of conference awards.  These awards are supposed to be based on merit, but that goal is compromised by the overall goal of generating conference-wide interest by distributing the awards widely. 

Let’s talk about the conference PoY award.  Stanford has three players who could legitimately win this award: Cameron Brink, Haley Jones, and Lexie Hull.  If offensive scoring is the key statistic, no Stanford player has a chance – Brink ranks 11th, Jones 15th, and Lexie Hull 16th in conference scoring stats. 

The three top scoring conference players, each averaging above 17 points per game, are Jade Loville (ASU 18.64 ppg), Jordyn Jenkins (USC 17.87 ppg) and Jayda Curry (Cal 17.30 ppg).  Each of these three play for a team in the bottom half of the conference.  None of these three teams has anyone else in the top 20 conference scoring average.  Each of the three top scoring players should make the all-conference team, but none are likely to be chosen conference PoY.

Therein lies one of the keys to understanding Stanford’s unblemished conference record.  Stanford is a multiple threat team that has eight or more players that, on any given day, could put up double digit points.  If a Stanford player is to win the PoY award, it has to be based on a broader look at how that player contributes. 

My pick for PoY is Lexie Hull.  She is a long shot to win the award because she is only the third highest scorer and the third highest rebounder on the team.  I like Hull because of EVERYTHING she does on the court.  In the overall stats it shows.  Matched against other conference players, Lexie Hull is number 2 in steals, number 6 in three point shots made, number 11 in three point shooting percentage (38%), number 11 in offensive boards, and number 16 in scoring.  For a non-post player, Hull’s offensive boarding stands out – she is an opportunistic boarder.  For her to do that well in boards is indicative of her focus, quickness, and intensity.  Hull also is a 77% free throw shooter.  LEXIE HULL DOES NOT QUIT.  Someone else must like what Lexie does for the team: she plays significantly more minutes than any other Stanford player.  Coach VanDerveer says that it is Lexie Hull and Anna Wilson who make Stanford go.  

My second choice pick for PoY is Haley Jones.  Once again, Jones is probably not the favorite – she is just second on the team in scoring and rebounding.  Jones, however, leads the league in defensive boards, is second in the league in total boards, is 6th in assists, is 9th in field goal percentage, is 10th in assist turnover ratio, is tied for 12th in blocks, is 15th in total scoring, and is 15th in free throw percentage.  Her turnovers per game, unhappily, are a negative, but Jones still has the 10th best assist/turnover ratio.  She is a clutch player who gets points when they are most needed.  Who can forget her fourth quarter productivity in Eugene in that come-from-behind win against Oregon. 

My third choice pick for PoY is Cameron Brink.  Brink leads the team in points, rebounds, and blocks.  Her conference-wide stats are also impressive.  Brink is number one in boards, is second in field goal percentage (behind Fran Belibi), and is number three in blocks and in both offensive and defensive boards.  Her free throw shooting is improving, but not yet ready for a letter home.  Brink is an inspirational player that will get better, but not yet the clutch performer that Jones is.

So those are my picks.  Any of these three players would be well deserving of the award.  I suspect that if a Stanford player wins the award, Brink is most likely to win, with a close second to Jones.   I'll stick to my choices.  

Now there’s defensive player of the year.  My pick?  I think the award should be shared by Lexie Hull and Anna Wilson, with another all-defensive team selection for Lacie Hull.  All three of these players are shut down defenders; all three are in the top ten for conference steals (Lexie Hull is 2nd, Anna Wilson is 3rd, and Lacie Hull is tied for 10th).   Each of the three is an all-around player.  Anna Wilson is number one in the conference for assist/turnover ratio and number six for assists.  Lacie Hull is number one in the conference in three point shooting; and tied for 13 in assists.

What previous Stanford team has had three players in the conference top ten for steals?  Is this the best defensive team ever for Stanford?   With the Hulls and Wilson doing ball hawking and stealing, and Brink and Jones doing some shot blocking, my bet is YES. 

February 21, 2022

Stanford Preeminence -- Conference Chaos

 

Warren Grimes

After a hard fought, storybook comeback against Oregon on Sunday, Stanford has established conference preeminence.  Stanford is the only team undefeated in conference and, with two games remaining, has clinched the regular season championship.  There is no one to nip at the champion’s heels; every other team has lost at least 5 conference games.

The statistics back up Stanford’s superiority.  Stanford is number one in the most important statistical categories (counting only regular season conference games): scoring margin, scoring offense, field goal percentage, field goal percentage defense, 3-point percentage, rebounding margin, rebounding offense, rebounding defense, defensive rebounding percentage, assists, and assist/turnover ratio.  If the conference kept stats on points off of turnovers, Stanford would likely excel in that category as well.  The team is second in the conference for three point shots per game, blocked shots, and defensive boards per game.  

And here is one other unexpected plus for this Stanford team: it is number two in the conference for steals per game (tied with Arizona) and number three for turnover margin.  Past Stanford teams have not always excelled in these areas.   The high turnovers against early season opponents such as Texas may be a thing of the past.

Of course, Stanford is not invulnerable.  The team stands out for its poor free throw shooting – only the 9th best in the league, shooting just 72.9 %.  Even here, however, the team shows improvement, moving up from its 67.9% for the entire season (counting the early non-conference games). 

Stanford’s vulnerability to a conference opponent playing its “A” game was amply demonstrated by the recent Oregon game.   Consider these facts.

Stanford had the lead in only the first minute (thanks to a technical foul called against Oregon for improper lighting of the basket) and in the last 36 seconds of the game.  Oregon held the lead (or was tied) for the other 38 plus minutes, sometimes stretching it out to 10 or 11 points.

Oregon was the first Pac-12 opponent to out rebound Stanford (42-40).  With the exception of one Colorado game (tied Stanford in boards), Stanford handily won other rebounding battles.

Although Stanford leads the league in three point shooting percentage, the team shot only 18.8% (3/16) against Oregon. 

Once again, defense was absolutely crucial.  Stanford won the battle for turnovers and steals, offsetting the team’s low shooting percentages and deficiency in rebounding.   

The storybook narrative for the Oregon game is really about the second half, and especially about the fourth quarter.  Stanford was five points down at the half, but came back in the third quarter after Anges Emma-Nnopu’s three point swish brought Stanford within one (46-47) to start the fourth quarter.

The last quarter began with Oregon getting open threes that built the lead back to ten (46-56 with 8:08 on the clock).  With exactly 5 minutes left, Oregon still held an 8 point lead (52-60).  With Haley Jones taking over, Stanford went on a 14 to 2 run for the rest of the game.

Here are the key plays:

54-60 -- 4:34 on the clock, Iriafen (great game) gets a layup off a smooth feed from Jones.

56-60 -- 3:57 on the clock, Jones gets a driving layup in traffic.

56-60 – 3:15 on the clock, Jones decisively blocks Endyia Rogers’ layup attempt.

58-60 -- 2:41 on the clock, Jones gets a driving spin-move lay up in heavy traffic.

60-60 -- 2:15 on the clock, Brink ties the game on a jumper off a feed from Wilson.

 63-60 -- 00:36 on the clock, on drive in traffic, Jones throws up an answered prayer while falling backwards to the floor, then converts the free throw.  Even TVD was excited.    

63-62 – 00:28 on the clock, Oregon’s Sabally converts two free throws.

65-62 – 00:20 on the clock, Lexie Hull converts two free throws.

66-62 – 00:06 on the clock, after Oregon fails to convert, Emma-Nnopu converts one of two free throws.

That’s it.

Stanford won this game because they overcame poor outside shooting, stayed within reach, and, with Haley Jones’ help and really solid defense, took over the last five minutes of the game.

Meanwhile, the conference lineup for the Pac-12 tournament shows chaos and surprise.  Washington State, a surprise performer, upset Arizona and is now tied for second with Oregon (Both teams have 10-5 conference records).  Arizona falls to fourth, but with a 9-5 record.  None of these three teams will have an easy last weekend, but Arizona has home games against UCLA and USC.  WSU has to play Stanford at Maples, while Oregon has two tough away games against Colorado and Utah, both fighting for NCAA berths.  These three teams are favored, but not assured, to get the top four seeds (and first round byes).

Washington State, based simply on raw talent, may not belong in the top four.  They lost decisively to Oregon and in their first game against Stanford.  Those wide margin losses are offset by clutch performances, as against Arizona (albeit helped by the injury to Arizona's starting center).  

Meanwhile, Stanford continues its quest for conference perfection at home, in its last scheduled games, one of them against WSU -- the other against Washington.  It can be done.

February 14, 2022

DEFENSE: Stanford Adds Three More to the String

 

Warren Grimes

Yes, Stanford played three home games in six days last week.

 In each, Stanford played 13 or 14 players.

In each, Stanford prevailed by a double digit margin (the smallest was a 17 point margin over Colorado).

In each, Stanford scoring was diversified among starters and non-starters (the two highest scoring players in a single game were Hannah Jump (19) and Fran Belibi (16), each of whom came off the bench against OSU).

In each, Stanford’s defense, while less than perfect, was impressive.  The opponent average for the three games was 56.3, not bad when you consider Utah has the highest scoring offense in the conference, and Oregon State has its own potent offense. 

Stanford was stingy, turning the ball over less (Stanford had 31 turns for the week, while its collective opponents had 58 turns).  Stanford blocked the ball 20 times, while opponents managed only 6.  And, where it really counts, Stanford had 59 points off of turnovers to its opponents’ 23.  For opponents, those are demoralizing stats. 

The intensity of Stanford’s defense was evident.  Crouched low on the perimeter, raised up in the interior, the focus of every player was evident.  There was team help defense, with the players communicating to execute the scouting report.  And the team seemed to amp up in crucial moments, as in the second half against Colorado.  Time and again, a Colorado interior pass ended up in the hands of Lexie Hull (6 steals) Anna Wilson (3 steals).   

So defense is the most critical and most enjoyable part of the game.  Why? 

When Stanford’s defense is working, so too is its transition offense.   The connection is direct.  Transition opportunities almost never result when an opponent scores and forces Stanford to inbound.  When Stanford steals, or disrupts and gets a board, the opponent has less opportunity to organize a defense.  Once a transition is underway, there is fun, creativity, and an opportunity for sharing.  It may be Jones making a length of the court run for an acrobatic layup; it may be Cameron Brink or Fran Belibi running just behind the ball and ready to take a no look feed from Jones or Lacey Hull—once it’s in their hands, forget about it; or it may be Hannah Jump or one of the Hulls posting up for a last second feed beyond the arc for a three.  Swish!   

In the Utah game, there was a box score story.  Six different Stanford players scored in double digits – and a seventh player was on the cusp (Hannah Jump had 9 points).  More should be made of this point, because it is unusual.  How often does a  team score 91 points spread among 6 double-digit scorers.  I’d say rarely, if ever!   It typifies the talent rich and sharing nature of this basketball team. 

Another story line was Haley Jones performance in the second half against Colorado.  Jones had no points and only one board as Colorado ended the first half with a one point lead.   Jones and her mates needed to step it up.   And they did.  Collectively, they held Colorado to just 16 second half points.   Jones grabbed 4 second half boards, put up 10 points, and added two blocked shots. 

Most of the story is not in the stats, but how Jones used her driving skills to score fourth quarter points, maneuvering between and among defenders, to put the game out of reach for the Buffaloes.  I give Jones a large share of the credit for these demoralizing moves – and clearing the bench.

Now it’s on to the Oregon weekend, the toughest one of the conference season.  Stanford has what it takes to continue winning, but it will take all of the team’s focus and intensity.

February 07, 2022

Stanford’s Silent Killers and Energizer Bunnies

 Warren Grimes

Stanford swept the LA schools this past weekend.  And they did it without Haley Jones (Covid Protocol absentee).

Is that a big deal?

Well, yes, it is. 

Haley Jones leads the team in assists (by a wide margin).

Haley Jones is a magnet for drawing fouls and consistently converts (shooting 86%).

Haley Jones is a key member of the “bring-the-ball-up-the-court” committee.

Haley Jones is the team’s second leading scorer and was the top scorer in 4 of the 8 January games.

Haley Jones is the second leading rebounder (8.2 per game, just behind Brink’s 8.5 per game).

Haley Jones is a strong defender and has the second highest blocked-shot total.

Haley Jones’ creative length-of-the-court drives score clutch points and demoralize opponents.

Candor requires that I also disclose Jones’ team-leading 57 turnovers, or 3.2 per game.  Turnovers notwithstanding, Jones can well be viewed as the single most valuable component in the Stanford machine.  This past weekend, playing without Jones, Stanford did not blink an eye, in part because Cameron Brink had a career weekend, and Fran Belibi ably slipped into the starting lineup with lots of points and rebounds.

To be sure, Jones' absence from the lineup likely influenced the statistics.  In LA, Stanford drew fewer fouls and converted on fewer of them.  Against UCLA, Stanford made only five of ten foul shots.  And turnovers?  Both UCLA (10 turns to Stanford's 8) and USC (17 turns to Stanford's 15) had more turnovers than Stanford did.  

Maybe statistics don’t adequately tell the story, because the Hull twins were silent killers in both contests.  The twins just keep going, and going, and going.  The Energizer Bunny confessed exhaustion, just from watching them.    

Against UCLA, Lexie had 14 points and 10 boards while playing for 36 minutes.  Look deeper -- she also had 5 assists and a steal.  Meanwhile, her sister Lacie played for 26 minutes, had 8 points, 7 assists, 1 block and 1 steal. 

Against USC, Lexie played a mere 30 minutes, but had 9 points, 4 boards, 2 assists, and 2 blocked shots.  It’s that deeper look at the statistics that shows what the twins do -- all the time, non-stop.  Lacie played for 27 minutes, also contributed 9 points and had 4 assists and 3 steals.   

Lacie Hull is the chairwoman of the bring-the-ball-up-the-court committee.  She can still score points, including three point shots against both UCLA and USC. 

If you want entertainment and non-stop action, just watch either of the twins regardless of who has the ball.  They are constantly moving, anticipating, staying focused and in the game.  The beauty of this is that they set a pattern for the rest of the team.    

The total commitment approach of Lexie and Lacie rubs off on others.  Cameron Brink’s passion for the game is visible to everyone.  In Brink’s case, her contributions show up easily in the statistics.  But a number of other players show the total commitment with less statistical showing; the mantra of the silent killer.  Anna Wilson belongs in this category.  So does Agnes Emma Nnopu and Alyssa Jerome, when she gets her occasional minutes. 

And then there’s the freshmen.  Someone like Kiki Iriafen may be a relatively silent killer for now, but not for long.  Her explosiveness on offense and on the boards is already apparent.  She enters the game not just in “junk” time, but in the first half when the game is still in doubt.  Iriafen had 7 points against USC.  Then there is Brooke Demetre, who really fits the role of a silent killer because she is quiet and unselfish on the court.  Demetre had some turnovers earlier in the season, but now seems comfortable in the offense.  Demetre is a very precise passer and can launch killer jump shots from near and far.  Against USC, Demetre had 6 points on 2 for 3 shooting from beyond the arc, and added two picture perfect assists to her mates cutting for the basket.  Both of these players would be starters and stars on most, maybe all, of rival Pac-12 squads. 

Energizers and silent and not so silent Hull protégés will be in demand for the upcoming three home matches in six days, against OSU, Utah, and Colorado.  But, for the real deal, keep your eyes glued on one of the Hulls for a few minutes.  Make sure you have fresh batteries.

January 31, 2022

Stanford's Unprecedented and Exceptional Janurary

 

Warren Grimes

On the last Sunday of the month, Stanford finished its January schedule with a hard fought 75-69 victory over #8 Arizona.  With only 8 games played in the month, Covid had subtracted from a 10 game schedule.  The string of 8 January victories was nonetheless an extraordinary accomplishment.

So what's such a big deal about a string of 8 victories?  Well, to begin with, it's the way it was done.

Let’s begin with Arizona.  This was a rematch of the NCAA championship game 10 months ago.  The Wildcats lost their high scoring point guard, but showed impressive offensive balance in scoring 69 points (Arizona had only 53 points in the NCAA championship game last year).  Stanford took an early lead, but that lead was never more than 12.  Single digit leads were vulnerable to back and forth scoring runs.  Cate Reese was a major contributor for the Wildcats, with 17 points on 3 for 6 shooting from beyond the arc.  The game was not decided until the last minute.

Haley Jones had hurt Arizona badly back in March 2021, so Arizona coach Adia Barnes worked to  control Jones.  Barnes succeeded in keeping Jones away from the basket, limiting her to 4 points on 2 for 12 shooting (Jones still had 7 boards and 6 assists).  Defending Stanford, however, is like a whack-a-mole game.  You stop one player, and up pops another to make your life miserable.  In this case, Cameron Brink had a career game with 25 points and 15 boards.  And the real and unexpected pop up player was Jana Van Gytenbeek, who came off the bench to score 18 points on 6/8 three point shooting.

That’s really Stanford’s January story.  It’s an exceptional story about depth and the ability of different players to step up and make a difference when their mates are stymied.  Opponents can stop some but not all of Stanford’s offensive options.

Take a look at each of the last eight games to see who has been the top scorer.  Four different starters (Haley Jones 4 times, Cameron Brink 2 times, Lexie Hull and Hannah Jump once) have been the top scorer in one or more of these eight games.

If one broadens the metric to see which players have been among the top three scorers in each game, Stanford’s diversity and depth becomes even more apparent.  In six of the eight January games, players from off the bench have been among the top three scorers for the team.  Fran Belibi has been among the top three in four games while Kiki Iriafen has achieved that goal in two games.  Three other substitutes have been a top three scorer in one of the last eight games: Anna Wilson, Ashten Prechtel, and Jana Van Gytenbeek.

With that sort of breadth and depth, one could honestly view the five starters, plus another five substitutes that have made substantial point contributions, as a formidable, whack-a-mole rotation. And it's not just points.  Players such as Anna Wilson come off the bench to contribute on defense.  Indeed, I would argue that the actual rotation is larger, and includes Jordan Hamilton, Agnes Emma Nnopu, and Brooke Demetre.   Each of these players played in critical moments in January.

Both Emma Nnopu and Hamilton played vital minutes in the opening half against California, when the Bears were threatening.  And Demetre was brought in as a substitute for Jones in the critical first half against Arizona.  Each of these players has her own strengths and can be used situationally.  For example, Demetre did not score a lot of points in January, but is a consistent and focused player who makes few mistakes, plays smart defense, and can be a deadly jump shooter from long and mid-range.  She’s a player who can break down a zone defense.

Doing the addition, Stanford’s situational rotation includes 13 players (at least) who can be called upon in critical moments of a game.  If one or more of these players has an off night, bring in someone else.

What else can be said about the eight game January run?   Resilience, of course, is high on the list.  Opponents in the toughest conference in the country regularly bring their A game against Stanford.  Even California, which is so far winless in conference, played Stanford tough in the second quarter, ending the half with a tie score.  Stanford’s defense – and its whack-a-mole offense -- made the difference in six hotly contested January games.  Only against Washington State and ASU did Stanford assert a comfortable first half lead and maintain it in the second half. 

Two other common themes were evident in the January games.  The first is improved free throw shooting.  For the season, the team is shooting just 67% from the charity stripe, but exceeded that percentage in every one of the last eight games (from a low of 70% against Colorado to a high of 83.3% against Oregon).

The second theme is rebounding.  Stanford won the rebounding battle in each of the last eight games.  The margin was close against Oregon (33-29), but more one-sided against other opponents.  Stanford out boarded Arizona by a 34 to 26 margin.   The rebounding advantage helps to offset Stanford turnovers, where January opponents continued to exploit the team (Stanford had 18 turns against Arizona while Arizona yielded just 11). 

What’s ahead is the second half of the conference schedule, including possible make up games.  Stanford may be favored in each of these games, but will be sorely tested by Oregon in Eugene and by every other conference opponent who can bring their A game.   This weekend, those opponents will be a very talented but short-handed UCLA and USC.

January 17, 2022

High Altitude Resilience

 

Warren Grimes

Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer has often spoken of the resilience of last year’s championship-winning team.  Is that still true this year?  Even at high altitude?

Boulder, Colorado, where Stanford played Colorado on last Friday evening, is more than a mile (5328 feet) above sea level.  The Huntsman Arena in Salt Lake, in the hills above the city, is almost that high (4803 feet above sea level).

I can’t say that the altitude didn’t matter.  But yes, Stanford definitely proved it’s still resilient this year, even at high altitudes.  In both contests Stanford was challenged by a motivated and very good team.  Colorado came into the game ranked no. 22 and the last undefeated team in Division IA.  Utah was 9-3 with some exciting new freshmen and an attitude.

Both opponents played great in the first half and had a lead at halftime.  Both opponents, especially Colorado, played inspired defense.  In the first quarter, Colorado’s aggressive defense generated double digit turnovers.  The Buffaloes had a 15 to 8 point advantage at the end of the first 10 minutes.  The turns were less frequent as the game progressed, but Colorado generated a humbling 22 turns against Stanford. 

Stanford, however, was resilient, winning every subsequent quarter.  It was an 8-point margin (60-52) at the end, but the outcome was in doubt until the last minutes.  The Stanford starters were there, particularly Haley Jones with 11 points, 8 boards, and 5 assists.  Stanford dominated the boards to at least partially offset the turns (Brink, Belibi, and Prechtel had 7 boards each, and Iriafen played just 3 minutes, but got 3 boards and 2 points in that time).

So what is the takeaway from the Colorado game?  Teams with high energy and quickness on defense can wreak havoc with Stanford’s offense.  But can they do it for a full 40 minutes?  Colorado succeeded splendidly for the first 8 minutes of the game, building an 11 point margin in the first quarter.  But a combination of better ball control by Stanford and a gradual decrease in focus and intensity on the part of Colorado was enough to turn this game.  The game was very physical, but Stanford was able to answer with its own physicality.  On that note, Ashten Prechtel has always played great against Colorado, and did that again with her 10 points and 7 boards (Prechtel was 2/4 from long distance).

Utah was a different story.  But like Colorado, the Utes were an inspired opponent that took a substantial first half lead against Stanford.  This time, the opponent’s deluge came in the second quarter when the Utes blitzed Stanford from the three point line and took, at one point, a 13-point lead.  The half ended with Utah enjoying a 7 point margin (37 to 30).  Utah’s secret wasn’t so much its aggressive defense.  They generated 12 Stanford turns, but really it was the Utes efficient half-court offense that generated more points against Stanford (73) than any other opponent this season.  Maryland and Gonzaga managed 68 points in losses to Stanford.  Even in its three losses, Stanford did not give up more than 65 points.  Against Stanford, the Utes shot 39% from distance, and 40% overall. 

That efficiency fell off in the fourth quarter, when Utah got only 10 points (against Stanford’s 23 points).   So, once again, Stanford’s fourth quarter defense won the game.  The game was still up for grabs late into the quarter, but the momentum for Utah was squelched by Stanford’s defense.  The other story of this game is that Stanford was able to put on its own offensive display, led by Cameron Brink’s 24 points and 11 boards, and Lexie Hull’s 21 points (5 three pointers).  The third highest scorer for Stanford?  Anna Wilson had 12 critical points, including two three pointers and two midrange jumpers that were real difference makers.

Speaking of stop-and-pops, Stanford could do more with the midrange jumper.  Opponents can harass our three point shooters, as Colorado did.  They can clog the middle, as both the mountain schools did.  But there are openings in the midrange that Stanford could exploit.  I’d like to see Haley Jones and Lexie and Lacie do more from the midrange.  Brink and Jump too.

Free throw shooting, which plagued Stanford earlier this season, has improved.  Cameron Brink, who had struggled mightily with free throws, was 8 for 11 during the two games.   As a team, Stanford was 32 for 44 during the two games – that’s a respectable 73 percent.

Another note is Stanford’s continuing demonstration of versatility.  The game high scorer has been different for each of the last four games (Lexie Hull – Oregon, Hannah Jump – Gonzaga, Haley Jones – Colorado, and Cameron Brink – Utah).  Different players off the bench have contributed in these games, including Fran Belibi, Ashten Prechtel, Anna Wilson, and Kiki Iriafen.  Stanford is a versatile and talented handful.

Before Stanford moves on to upcoming games against California, you can check off the box for “resilience at high altitude.” 

January 03, 2022

Washington State: How to Frame the Question

 

Warren Grimes

Going into Sunday’s Washington State game, there were two ways to frame the question.

How could Stanford possibly win?

Stanford was without five very talented players because of the Covid protocol.  Among them were top scorer and shot blocker Cameron Brink.  True, Stanford had defeated number seven-ranked and previously undefeated Tennessee with Brink in foul trouble, playing only 8 minutes.  Against Tennessee, however, Stanford had Ashten Prechtel, a dominant post player who came off the bench and devastated the Volunteers in the fourth quarter.  Prechtel, however, was also out, as was a third veteran post player, Alyssa Jerome.  Yep, Stanford was thin at the post.  The other two missing players – Agnes Emma Nnopu and Brooke Demetre – also had seen significant playing time off the bench.  Things did not look rosy for Stanford.

How could Stanford possibly lose?

Stanford had four of its five regular starters, led by All American Haley Jones and the Hull twins. Close to home country – and with family in the stands – you knew the Hulls were there to play.   To replace Brink at the post, Fran Belibi was and is a player of consequence.  Off the bench, there were players like Anna Wilson and blossoming freshman post Kiki Iriafen.  That is a roster of a top ten team.  This is the deepest team Stanford has ever had, with more than enough talent to take down the Cougars.

So, it turns out, the second question call was the more accurate.  After a struggling first quarter, Stanford turned on the defense and almost doubled Washington State on the score board (82 to 44).  The Hull twins and Anna Wilson led the charge on defense (Lacie Hull played 36 minutes).  As she had against Tennessee, Haley Jones was there with bells on – 24 points, 16 boards, and 3 assists.   Actually, Jones could have had more assists if teammates hadn’t missed some easy conversions.

Also Iriafen came to play, providing a meaningful post presence with 13 points and 8 boards in just 14 minutes.  As did Belibi, who started at the post, scoring 10 points and grabbing 8 boards in her 16 minutes of court time.  If you do the math, that means that for 10 minutes of the game, Stanford played without a regular post player.  Not to worry – Haley Jones can do that too.  True, playing the post against Washington State is made easier because the Cougars don’t have a lot to offer at that position.  Still, with her strength and quickness, Jones can play the post when asked to do so.  

Jones does what the team needs.  Point guard?  Shooting guard?  Power forward?  Post?  Her flexibility, along with her productivity, is why jones should be a consensus first team All American this season.   That result isn’t a given.  When other players (for example, Brink, Lexie Hull, or Hannah Jump) have the hot hand, Jones will back off a bit on the offense.   So far, Jones hasn't done what Ionescu did for Oregon two years ago – constantly lead the team in scoring, assists, and often  boards as well.  Ionescu was a triple double master.  Jones could be that as well, but sometimes, she appears to lose focus.   Is that because Jones lacks the fire, or is it a wise and team-enhancing choice to share the limelight with her teammates? 

So far this season, Jones appears to play best when it is most needed.  She did that in the tournament last year; she did it this year against Tennessee; and, I expect and hope, she will continue to do so,  including against the Oregon schools this weekend..