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Offensive struggles sink Stanford as season ends in second round

Mar 20, 2023
Photo courtesy Brandon Vallance/ISI Photos

STANFORD, Calif. - The top-seeded Stanford Cardinal never led its second-round NCAA Tournament game at Maples Pavilion Sunday night. Not for a moment.

And in the end, the hole they dug for themselves was too steep a climb. Stanford’s bid for a second national championship in three years ended in front of a full, loud and ultimately dejected crowd at Maples Pavilion, as the Cardinal fell 54-49 to No. 8 seed Ole Miss, which will make its first Sweet 16 appearance since 2007.

Stanford (29-6) became the first No. 1 seed since Duke in 2009 to fail to get out of the second round of the NCAA Tournament. It was a difficult night in every way for the Cardinal, even the comeback was a grind.

They were outrebounded by the smaller Rebels, 44-39. They turned the ball over 21 times — including three critical possessions in the game’s final 28 seconds — leading to 24 Ole Miss points. They missed a multitude of layups and got just three points from their bench. They were just 2 of 7 from beyond the arc.

Still, thanks to some stellar defensive moments, the Cardinal were tied at 49-49 with the ball in their hands and 40.9 seconds to go.

But a few key mistakes later, and it was Ole Miss celebrating on Stanford’s home floor, the Cardinal fighting back tears.

“This is not the way I wanted my senior year to end,” said senior Haley Jones. “It’s disappointing. I think it’s tough to lose a game when you feel as a team just wasn’t your best all around game.

“I was proud of the way our team stuck together. It didn’t end up in our favor. I think this team had the capability to go all the way and sometimes it just doesn’t end that way. I don’t think it’s hit me yet.”

Junior post Cameron Brink was back on the floor after missing the Cardinal’s first-round game with the stomach flu. She led Stanford with 20 points and 13 rebounds, including a 10-for-10 effort from the free-throw line. Jones finished with 16 points and 8 rebounds, but it was a tough offensive night, with 7-of-19 shooting from the floor and five turnovers for the All-American. Brink said she still felt a little sick during the game.

“I’m just getting back to my normal self,” Brink said. “I definitely got a little winded throughout the game, but I tried to play my best.”

Down by nine at halftime and 13 in the 3rd quarter and struggling to seize momentum, Stanford forced its way out of the hole. But late mistakes were very costly, the errant pass by senior Hannah Jump and a turnover by Jones, the ball rolling out of bounds as she tried to work her way out of a trap. The Cardinal’s final possession of the game — and what turned out to be the season — was also a turnover.

“I think that we struggled offensively, and I think that I give them credit for working hard defensively,” Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said. “But I think some of the things that we did were self-inflicted.  Some of the turnovers, I think the turnovers really hurt us. Just times where the ball just slipped out of people's hands or just making some maybe poor decisions. Our turnovers hurt us.  I think they are really a tough team.  I think they are much better than a lot of 8-(seed) teams than we've played before and sometimes you don't have a really good matchup. I thought they did really well.  But we needed to play better.”

After the aftermath of a disappointing loss — Stanford’s earliest tournament exit since 2007 —  VanDerveer talked about the last month and a half of the season, in which the Cardinal lost four of their six games to Washington, to Utah, to UCLA in the Pac-12 Tournament and now this loss to Mississippi. Stanford closed the season with three losses in five games.

VanDerveer said that the players shared during a recent team meeting that this was “harder than they thought it was or they remembered.”

Stanford struggled offensively over the final stretch of the season, and for VanDerveer, the perils of both Conference teams locked into the Cardinal’s offensive gameplan and the need to lean on a young backcourt became increasingly apparent. 

“I’m not going to fall into the trap of saying we had a terrible season,” VanDerveer said. “This is a very young backcourt and I think that, when we had Lexie and Lacie (Hull) and Anna Wilson, we had a lot of experience and tournament wins are about your backcourt. They had the ability to run the offense and the leadership that comes from those positions…I think this was a great experience for our freshmen.”

Brink will be the anchor of a team next season that will include a more experienced lineup of sophomores like Talana Lepolo, Indya Nivar and Lauren Betts. Jump is planning to return for a fifth-season to provide perimeter experience.

Brink said she is ready to pass on the lessons from this experience.

“I’ve got to bring that leadership and just tell the freshmen and underclassmen that nothing is guaranteed,” Brink said. “We can't be soft.  We have to always play with a chip on our shoulders, and just be gritty. I feel like we were lacking some of that this year, so there is always room to improve.”