The Stanford Cardinal navigated their way through the COVID-19 pandemic last year to claim the National Championship – the first in 29 years for the team, and Hall of Fame coach Tara VanDerveer.
So naturally the question this season is, can they do it again?
The Cardinal went 31-2 overall and 19-2 in Pac-12 play despite spending almost 100 days of the season on the road, as pandemic restrictions in their home county prevented them from practicing or playing there. Besides forging strong bonds from the experience, the key to their cohesion was in their defense.
Stanford held opponents to 54 points per game and 33 percent shooting from the field. Their length was a huge part to their defense, as it allowed them to deflect passes and block shots. They return all of that length this year, and junior guard Haley Jones said the team has been working hard in practice to improve.
“In the post, everybody’s really stepped up their game,” Jones said. “Ashten (Prechtel), Cam (Brink) and Fran (Belibi), working on deflecting shots and being a big presence down there. … People being afraid to get in the key, when you have that many blocks in the game, a lot of people just don’t want to come in there when you’re in there. So, (they’re) just kind of making their presence felt.”
The Cardinal lost a key contributor in point guard Kiana Williams, who started 128 career games, averaged 14 points per outing and was a steady, calming presence on a court of young players. She was also their top shooter from behind the arc.
Ranked No. 3 to start the season, Stanford has the pieces to compensate for the loss of their floor general and defend their championship.
Replacing Willaims will be a challenging task, but the Cardinal are deep. Returning for her sixth year is point guard Anna Wilson, who was the conference co-defensive player of the year in 2020-2021. She also shot 45 percent from the three-point line.
Jordan Hamilton, a grad transfer from Northwestern, will play some point minutes too, as she can play both guard positions. Jana Van Gytenbeek, who played some as a freshman, could spend some time at the point, as well.
Hull sisters ready to roll
Both Lexie and Lacie Hull return after stellar seasons. Lexie, a talented wing, started 32 games last year and averaged 11.6 points and 5.1 rebounds per game. Lacie plays both positions in the backcourt, and averaged 3 points and 1.4 assists per outing off the bench. Both twin sisters play hard and are very competitive.
“They’re two of the most competitive people you’ll ever meet,” VanDerveer said. “They take different classes, but they still have an identical grade point average.”
It’s Haley Jones time
If Stanford is to repeat, Jones will have to play a major role. She averaged 13.2 points and 7.4 rebounds last season, but it was her clutch play in the Final Four that put the Cardinal over the top, and earned her the award for Most Outstanding Player of the series. Now she will be the focal point of the offense, with a 52 percent mid-range jumper. If Jones can improve her three-point shot, she will have an excellent all-around game and will be almost impossible to stop.
Jones attributed her late-season heroics to increased belief in herself.
“I don’t think that was due to me working,” she said. “I was working extra, but it wasn’t like I was just shooting threes all the time. I think it came with confidence. I knew I had it in me. … It was just a lack of confidence.”
Can Cameron Brink improve more?
Stanford could be even more dangerous if sophomore Cameron Brink improves on what she did in her freshman season, when she averaged 9.9 points and 6.6 rebounds per game. With her wing span and length and 6-4, she is an exceptional shot blocker and is more than adept in grabbing defensive boards. If she continues to channel her extreme passion for the game into further development, she will roast opponents.
Role players ready to contribute
Hannah Jump will be the Cardinal’s sharpshooter to help space the floor for Jones and the other ball handlers. She converted on 43 percent of her three-point shots last year.
Fran Belibi has improved this offseason, especially on the offensive boards. Between her and Brink, Stanford should control the glass. Ashten Prechtel is 6-5 and can shoot the ball from three-point land. She is a 37 percent shooter from beyond the arc.
Freshman coming in
The Cardinal have several talented freshmen coming in this year. Elena Bosgana is a 6-2 athletic wing that can shoot from the outside and distribute that basketball. VanDerveer said Bosgana has been the team’s best three-point shooter in practices. In addition, Brooke Demterie, Kiki Iriafen, and Jzaniya Harriel will give the team young talent that they can develop over the years.
The defending champions will be challenged early in the season, as they play six top 25 teams this month in Texas, Indiana, USF, Maryland, Tennessee and South Carolina. When they begin Pac-12 play, they face four other ranked teams in Oregon, Oregon State, UCLA and Arizona.
“We’re going to be very challenged, but I think that that will help us grow,” VanDerveer said. “That will point out things that we need to work on, things we need to do better and things that will help us in the long run.”
If they can successfully mitigate their new point guard rotation, Stanford could repeat this year. Once again defense will be their calling card, with Brink anchoring them in the middle, it will be hard for opposing teams to get easy baskets. And if Brink and Jones continue to improve offensively, the sky is the limit for the Cardinal.
They play Clarke Saturday in an exhibition game, and tip off the season next Thursday at home against Morgan State.