March 31, 2022
2022 Final Four preview: Can the Cardinal get to a second straight national championship game?
What the Cardinal will need to do to defeat UConn in the national semifinal
The defending national champions are back in the Final Four. With eight of nine major contributors returning from last year’s championship team, it’s no surprise the Cardinal find themselves in their 15th Final Four in program history.
This time, they find themselves matched up with fellow blue blood Connecticut. The Cardinal and the Huskies have met 18 times, most recently in 2017, with UConn leading the series 11-8. They have met in the postseason five times, with Stanford winning only once. For the Cardinal to advance to their second straight championship game, they need to continue to rely heavily on what has gotten them here, and it starts with their depth.
A bench full of specialists
Stanford is probably the deepest team in the country. Everyone knows the top-end talent the Cardinal have. But the biggest key to their success is their depth. Stanford’s leading scorer in 11 of 38 games has been one of its bench players, and all of the bench players have their own unique way to affect the game.
First is Hannah Jump, the 3-point specialist who is shooting 40% from beyond the arc this year. Next is Fran Belibi, the athletic forward who can block shots and dunk, as we all saw against Montana State in the first round. Next up are Ashten Prechtel and Kiki Iriafen. Prechtel is a 6’5 post who can shoot threes, and Iriafen is a freshman post who brings a ton of energy to the floor.
They have a sizable advantage against UConn — the Huskies just lost key bench contributor Dorka Juhasz and are now down to a rotation of just eight players. Stanford is 14-0 when its bench outscores its opponents. If it can get their usual contribution from its reserves, that will go a long way to deciding whether the Cardinal play for a second straight national championship.
“The most important thing for me is just to be ready whenever we need it, and I think that’s the case for everyone on our team. I think that everyone, even people who don’t get the chance to play, all have the capability to do the same thing,” Prechtel said Thursday during Stanford’s pregame media availability in Minneapolis. “It’s just a matter of staying ready and being ready to go in when your name is called.”
A Brink block party
The star of this Stanford team is sophomore forward Cameron Brink. The AP All-American and Pac-12 Player of the Year has made huge strides in her second season. She leads the Cardinal in scoring, rebounding, blocked shots and shooting percentage.
She has a massive impact on the game when she is out on the floor. Her ability to alter shots is a major part of Stanford’s success on the defensive side of the ball. She is averaging just over four blocks a game during the NCAA Tournament. At one point in Stanford’s Elite Eight win over Texas, Brink blocked a shot on three of five Longhorn possessions.
While Brink has a big impact when she is in the game, staying on the court is something she has struggled with this year. Brink gets in foul trouble a lot for the Cardinal. She has fouled out three times this year and leads Stanford in fouls committed. She has only played 22 minutes per game in the four NCAA Tournament games, but Stanford is a +66 when Brink is on the floor. If Stanford wants to get past UConn, Brink will need to be playing as much as possible.
“I think Cam is an extremely talented player. I think that she does everything out there. She’s playing back to the basket; she can face up and hit her shot. I think her 3-ball this year has really kind of spread the floor in a lot of different ways,” said Haley Jones. “I think her game has expanded so much from last season, and I think a lot of it comes from her confidence level is a lot up. And I think she knows that we have that confidence in her, so she’s able to go out there and do her thing every night.”
Haley Jones is versatility
If Brink is the face of Stanford women’s basketball, Haley Jones isn’t far behind. The junior forward impacts the game for the Cardinal in so many ways. She can defend all five positions on the floor, is an incredible passer and has one of the highest basketball IQs in the game.
She also shows up in big games and moments. 2021 Final Four Most Outstanding Player: Jones. 2022 Pac-12 Tournament Most Outstanding Player: Jones. 2022 Spokane Region Most Outstanding Player: Jones. The Cardinal will need her to do that once again if they want to get past Connecticut.
“The bigger the game, the more our team needs Haley and the more Haley steps up,” Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer said. “She’s a great passer, and she really is a great facilitator, and she’s a very smart player, and she rebounds really well. She shot the ball well for us, too. She’s helping us in all facets of the game.”
A Hull of a player
Lexie Hull is putting together quite an impressive NCAA Tournament. Hull leads the Cardinal and the field in scoring in the NCAA Tournament, averaging 22.2 points per game. She had a career-high 36-point game against Kansas in the second-round victory, which included six steals. Not only is she one of the leaders of Stanford’s defense, but she is the heart of the team as well. Lexie consistently gets deflections, draws charges, and dives on the floor for loose balls. If she continues to play the way she has in this NCAA Tournament, the Cardinal will be in great shape to win their fourth national championship.
“Well, I think it just goes to the fact that she … is extremely competitive. She just does not want to lose. She just wants to win,” VanDerveer said. “I mean, she’ll get on the floor for the ball, she’s scrappy, she plays with great intensity. She’s really playing great … she works at every aspect of the game. She rebounds, she plays defense and she’s scoring.”
The defensive tone-setters
While Lacie Hull and Anna Wilson don’t score like the other three Cardinal starters, they still play a major role in Stanford’s success. Along with Lexie Hull, the two of them are the team’s defensive leaders. Everyone talks about Stanford’s offense and how smooth it looks, but the Cardinal defense is what has allowed them to be so successful these past two seasons.
Stanford has the country’s seventh-best field goal percentage defense and the second-best in the Final Four behind South Carolina. All three have been named a Pac-12 All-Defensive Team, and Wilson was the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year in 2021. Wilson and Lacie Hull have also taken on the role of starting point guard this year, which was vacated with the graduation of Kiana Williams.
Early in the year, the team struggled with turnovers, and it cost them some games. However, Wilson and Hull have figured out how to handle the pressure and have become incredibly reliable for the Cardinal. This year, the two have combined for 32% of the Cardinal’s assists.
“Anna is one of our primary defenders. She is locked in, works hard, she really knows that was her ticket to the starting lineup,” said VanDerveer. “Anna is fearless. We have what I call the lockdown club. We have four players that are in our lockdown defensive club. The first one was Kate Paye, the second one was Susan Borchardt, the third one was Ros Gold-Onwude, and the fourth one is Anna Wilson.”
Stanford matches up very well with Connecticut. The Cardinal have the size to match up with the longer guards for UConn. It will be interesting to see how VanDerveer decides to deploy her guards defensively. She could put Wilson on Paige Bueckers or on Azzi Fudd. Wilson did an incredible job of shutting down Katie Benzan in the game against Maryland, and Benzan is an excellent shooter, just like Fudd. I think the Cardinal have an advantage down low because of their depth. I expect Brink to guard Olivia Nelson-Ododa and Haley to guard Aaliyah Edwards. These are four excellent post players and I expect a physical battle down low.
However, both teams will have to be careful to stay out of foul trouble, as they’ve both had issues with that during this NCAA Tournament. Stanford will have to be prepared for UConn to put Bueckers in a lot of ball screens and for the Huskies to attack with a lot of high-low post looks.
The Cardinal run their Princeton offense so effectively. Texas is the only team that has been able to get them out of their rhythm, but I don’t think UConn has the personnel and depth to do that. Also, they shouldn’t have trouble bringing up the ball against UConn like they did against Texas. You never know who will have a big game with Stanford because of their offensive balance and depth. But I expect them to attack the UConn bigs due to the Huskies’ lack of depth down low.
Stanford will also need to take care of the ball, something they have struggled with this year. While UConn isn’t a team that forces many turnovers, you don’t want to turn it over and allow them to get out in transition and get easy baskets.
This is an incredible coaching battle between two of the greatest coaches of all time in the sport of basketball. VanDerveer, the 36-year coaching veteran, always seems to have a few tricks up her sleeve. Against Texas in the Elite Eight, she used a zone for a few defensive possessions, and it really threw the Longhorns off their rhythm. I fully expect her to have a game plan for Bueckers, and she will definitely hold some things in her back pocket for the second half to throw the Huskies for a loop. We have two incredible teams fighting for a chance to play in the national championship. I expect a battle between two of the historically great programs in the sport.
“They’re a very talented team. We know that. I think we match up very well. We both played great competition. We’re experienced teams,” VanDerveer said. “I think we play similar styles, and we know that the team that does their thing better will win.”
Written by Matthew Walter
Matthew Walter covers the Las Vegas Aces, the Pac-12 and the WCC for the Next. He is a former Director of Basketball Operations and Video Coordinator at three different Division I women's basketball programs.