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Freshman Talana Lepolo quietly leading Stanford women's basketball into NCAA Tournament

Mar 16, 2023
Photo courtesy Stanford Athletics

The request to Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer was simple, “Can we talk about Talana Lepolo?”

The response was equally simple. “YES!”

The enthusiasm for the Cardinal’s freshman point guard oozes from VanDerveer, a coach who has had more than a few outstanding point guards in her day. Lepolo will join a list that includes Sonja Henning, Jamila Wideman, Ros Gold-Onwude and Kiana Williams as freshman who led Stanford into the NCAA Tournament from point.

“I’m not sure any freshman has ever contributed at this position more than Talana Lepolo,” VanDerveer said. “Who is a better freshman point guard in the country?"

The list would surely be short.

Lepolo, who grew up across the bay from Stanford in Alameda, has been a VanDerveer dream — smart, decisive, poised, able to get the ball inside. She can defend on the perimeter and hit big shots from beyond the arc.

Lepolo has started 29 of 32 games this season, logging more than 25 minutes a game, averaging 4.9 points and 3.6 assists per game. The numbers aren’t eye-popping, but that would undervalue the stability she brings to the Cardinal when she is on the floor. She is shooting nearly 40 percent from the 3-point arc and 90 percent from the free-throw line. Her season’s best performance was a 17-point game against Creighton in which she hit five 3s.

“We have asked her to do things as a freshman that some senior point guards don’t do,” VanDerveer said. “Are there things I want her to do better or more of? Of course. But I think she’s phenomenal.”

Lepolo said everything about her first college season has exceeded her expectations.

“I actually didn’t have too many expectations. There are a lot of great players with a lot of experience on this team and I wanted to learn from them,” Lepolo said. “I’m still doing that, but I definitely didn’t think I’d be playing the minutes I am now.”

But Lepolo’s quiet confidence quickly made it clear to VanDerveer that she needed to play. The 41 minutes she played against defending national champion South Carolina, in which she finished with seven points, six assists and five rebounds cemented it. Lepolo was not intimidated.

“I thought I was trying to ease her in, but that wasn’t going to work,” VanDerveer said. “She walked on campus the same way a star quarterback does. Like an Andrew Luck or a John Elway. She doesn’t talk a lot. She just plays. She doesn’t try to do something outside of herself, she just goes out and plays. She is just really steady.”

Jeanette Pohlen played in four Final Fours at Stanford, including two as a starting point guard. Pohlen, now on VanDerveer’s staff at Stanford, has had long conversations with Lepolo about a situation she knows too well.

“One of my first conversations with her was telling her that they wouldn’t put her in this position if they didn’t think she could do it,” Pohlen said. “She deserves to be where she is and I know that Tara asks a lot of her point guards.”

Lepolo has been a floor general since she started playing as a kid. She has been building relationships with her coaches that long as well. 

“My role is to facilitate and help put my teammates in the best position,” Lepolo said. “We have great scorers and I have to get them the ball. I have to find Hannah (Jump) for a three, or get the ball in the block to Cam (Brink) or in transition to Haley (Jones). What’s given me so many of my minutes is that I am communicative and that’s what Tara wants to see.”

Lepolo said she initially deferred to the older players in the huddle, that she didn’t want to speak up or speak out too much.

“I’m finding a balance, throwing my voice in there, trusting my experience. I’ve learned how to insert myself,” Lepolo said.

Next for Lepolo, VanDerveer said, is being more aggressive on the offensive end. Taking the open shots and driving to the rim.

“I want her to attack, to get to the free-throw line,” VanDerveer said. “She’s unselfish to a fault, I would say. If I could wave one little wand, that would be it.”

Lepolo said she is ready. 

“I’m definitely excited (about the NCAA Tournament),” Lepolo said. “Everything is new. Even our first time in Vegas, Lauren (Betts) and I walked onto the court and were like ‘Wow, we aren’t watching this on TV. We are here’. There’s still that big bug-eyed freshman in me, and I’m a little nervous, but if you are not nervous, do you really care? I’m grateful and I’m here to win.”