April 2, 2022
Cardinal fell short of repeating but should hold their heads high
Tough offensive night doesn't take away from the success Stanford had this year
When the final buzzer sounded at the Target Center on Friday night, the Connecticut players ran to half court and mobbed each other. They had just knocked off the defending national champion in the Final Four and were headed to another national championship game. However, for the Stanford Cardinal it was the end of their run to become the fourth team ever to win back-to-back national titles.
The Cardinal came into Friday night’s Final Four contest as winners of 26 straight. They had gone undefeated in Pac-12 play and came into the NCAA tournament as one of the favorites to lift the championship trophy. However, their offense that had been so successful all season long didn’t seem to travel with them to Minneapolis.
“We did not play very well tonight, and we just — I think we really struggled running our offense. I think there were some self-inflicted wounds, what we were doing out there, and it was disappointing,” said Head Coach Tara VanDerveer.
The Cardinal all night looked out of sync on the offensive end. Their usual efficiently-run Princeton actions looked disjointed and slow-developing. They also took a lot of questionable outside shots; many coming from players who aren’t considered their strongest three-point shooters. Stanford had been averaging 74 points per game coming into the night but put up just 58 points, their third lowest scoring output of the season. Stanford also shot one of their worst percentages of the year from deep.
Stanford’s three-point shooting had been a gauge all season for how the Cardinal would win games. When Stanford hit a lot of threes, they were dominating opponents. When the Cardinal struggled from the outside, they were either winning by single digits or losing. In two of their four losses this season, Stanford shot below 18% from three. There were also multiple close wins where the Cardinal struggled from the outside.
It wasn’t just Stanford’s outside game that had a tough night on Friday, it was also the lack of production from their stars. Haley Jones, last year’s Final Four most outstanding player, had 20 points but shot 8-21 from the field and was 0-5 from downtown. She came into the game having made just 11 threes all year. Lexie Hull, who came into the game as the leading scorer in the NCAA tournament, had just four points on 2-12 shooting and missed all four of her three-point attempts. The Cardinal offense which had been a strength all season long was their downfall on Friday night.
“I think offensively a part of it is not hitting shots, but that’s bound to happen. You can’t make all of your shots,” said Jones. “I think we could have moved the ball better. I think we could have cut harder, screened better, whatever it may be. But I think we left a lot out there unsaid, and so that’s hard to swallow that pill where you leave the game feeling like as a team you didn’t leave your best out there.”
While the offense was rough for Stanford, their defense shined. The Cardinal held the Huskies to just 63 points, allowing them to shoot just 37% from the field. This is what they’ve done all season long. Stanford held opponents to an average of 57 points per game and allowed an opponent to score over 70 points against them just twice the entire year. The Cardinal were led by three players on the All-Defensive team for the Pac-12 as well as the Defensive Player of the year. They limited UConn star Paige Bueckers to just 14 points after she had a breakout game against NC State in the Elite 8.
Stanford had been an underrated defensive team all season long. They get a lot of notice for their offense and the star power of Jones and sophomore Cameron Brink. However, Anna Wilson and the Hull twins, Lexie and Lacie, have been the defensive leaders for the Cardinal. Coach VanDerveer has said before that she tries not to put them on the same team in practice because they always win. While all three of them will be moving on, they have left a lasting impression on their teammates and the Cardinal program.
Anna Wilson stepped on the Stanford campus in the Fall of 2016. She didn’t see a lot of playing time her first two years and missed a lot of time with two different foot injuries. She started to get more playing time her junior year, but it still wasn’t a ton of minutes and was better known for being Russell Wilson’s younger sister. However, she stuck with it and finally blossomed into her role as a defensive stopper last season.
Wilson started every game in the 20-21 season and won Pac-12 Co-Defensive Player of the Year. She always drew the defensive assignment of opponents’ best perimeter players and always made their lives miserable. This season, she took on a bigger role as the point guard and while it was bumpy to start, she flourished as a playmaker for the Cardinal. She is the definition of a Stanford student athlete. As a highly-rated recruit out of high school, she could have easily transferred after not getting a lot of playing time early in her career. However, she stuck with it and helped continue the tradition of success on the Farm, winning four Pac-12 tournament titles and a national championship.
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Lexie and Lacie Hull came to Stanford as freshman in 2018. They were talented players but were playing behind guards such as Kiana Williams, DiJonai Carrington and Marta Sniezek. They didn’t know if they would be able to play right away but behind their toughness and shot making ability, they found their way on to the floor. They also learned from those in front of them, picking up knowledge from two future WNBA players.
They grew together throughout their Stanford careers and played through a lot of adversity. They had their sophomore NCAA tournament cancelled by the COVID-19 pandemic. They had to play most of their junior year homes games in Santa Cruz due to restrictions placed on Stanford in Santa Clara County. However, through all that they found success. They won a national title last season, and both have started almost every game together this year. They will finish their Stanford careers with a record of 121-17. They made at least the Elite 8 in every NCAA tournament they played in. Now they move on from the Farm, ready for a professional career and don’t be surprised if you see at least one of them on a WNBA roster this upcoming season.
“I don’t think one game can define Lexie or Lacie or Anna Wilson, what they’ve done for this program. I wouldn’t trade her (Lexie Hull) for any player — she plays so hard,” said coach VanDerveer. “Honestly if our team can learn from these twins and Anna on how to practice and how to compete, we can be back here next year. They just are so competitive. They are so coachable.”
With Wilson and the Hull twins departing, Stanford will need to find new leadership. This team’s success will still lie heavily on the shoulders of Brink and Jones. Jones was a part of the leadership core for the Cardinal this year and shown the ability to have strong performances in big games. Brink has improved greatly in her sophomore season and has one of the brightest futures in college basketball. If she can cut down on the fouls, she could become the most dominant post player in the country. Those two will take the lead for the Cardinal next year but they will need others to come along for the ride.
Hannah Jump is a strong candidate to step into a starting role for Stanford next year. She started 13 games this year and averaged nine points per game. She is an excellent three-point shooter but will need to work on her mid-range and driving game. Fran Belibi could also become a starter if Stanford wants to go with a big lineup and have Jones play the three. They also have Jada Van Gytenbeek and other reserve guards who could see more time next year.
On top of their returning players, the Cardinal have three incoming freshmen including the number one overall player in the country, Lauren Betts. Betts is a 6’7″ post player who has already won two gold medals with USA basketball. They are also adding a five-star combo guard in Indya Nivar and a four-star point guard in Talana Lepolo. Coach VanDerveer doesn’t often go into the transfer portal but did this past year and got Jordan Hamilton from Northwestern. She may look to go their again and add some veteran guard depth. No matter who Stanford chooses to start, they will start not because they can score but because they can defend.
While the season ended on a low note, Stanford has accomplished a lot and will look to bounce back next season. They look for their fourth national title and hopefully for Cardinal fans, it won’t take another 29 years to get one.
“I think winning is great. We all love to win. We’re a very competitive team. Winning a Pac-12 regular season tournament and then the regional final and coming to a Final Four is something to be proud of,” Jones said. “I’m really proud of the team for that and the people that I get to play with. The resiliency, their grittiness, their toughness, I think that’s what I’m most proud of.”
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.