April 2, 2022 

Film room: How Stanford failed to adjust in Final Four loss to UConn

The Cardinal('s) sins were self-inflicted

Stanford entered Friday’s marquee Final Four matchup hotter than any team in the country. The Cardinal arrived in Minneapolis coming off of (relatively) comfortable wins over No. 4-seed Maryland and the second-seeded Texas Longhorns, the latter result avenging an early-season loss. Everything was coming together, with stars point wing Haley Jones and center Cameron Brink playing the best ball of their careers, and a deep bench that had completely shifted rotations between the Terp and Longhorn games without a hitch. In theory, Stanford’s versatility made it nearly matchup-proof.

UConn, however, was on an impressive tear of its own, beating tricky matchups in No. 9-seed UCF, third-seeded Indiana, and the Bridgeport region’s top team in N.C. State. Superstar point guard Paige Bueckers looked healthier after every game, and the Huskies remained one of the handful of most-talented rosters in the country throughout the year. With a coaching staff among the couple best in the country at game-planning, UConn was sure to be Stanford’s toughest test yet.



The Huskies did in fact play incredibly well, and were perfectly equipped to stymie the Cardinal’s base offense — as was expected. What wasn’t expected was how little Stanford’s coaching staff, led by women’s college basketball’s winningest coach in Tara VanDerveer, was going to adjust accordingly. For the first 35 minutes of the game, the Cardinal coaches elected to stick to their base cuts and passes, leaving little for UConn to have to account for, besides very well-drawn-up after-timeout plays. They also stuck with players who were performing well below their usual levels from opening tip.

Stanford shooting 4-for-23 from three or 8-for-13 from the line certainly affected the 63-58 loss as well, but sometimes the ball just doesn’t go in the hoop. On the other hand, the Cardinal experienced plenty of self-inflicted wounds. Let’s run through my game notes and some clips to see exactly how Stanford choked away its best chances.


First Quarter

9:38 — The Hull sisters’ night-long struggles were apparent immediately. Here, off-ball guard Lacie Hull overruns UConn combo guard Christyn Williams’ cut because she’s worried about disrupting Edwards, an offensive non-factor. This error in judgment allows Williams to cut back into wide open space for the first points.

8:56 — Wing Lexie Hull tries to take Bueckers, a mediocre defender, off the bounce in semi-transition. Hull doesn’t even get close to a decent look.

8:25 — UConn automatically switches the 4-5 pick-and-roll (PnR) with both big Aaliyah Edwards and center Olivia Nelson-Ododa on the court, and Jones can’t get to the rim.

7:36 — Lest I seem too harsh on Lexie, this was a very good steal.

7:17 — There’s no reason for Lexie to be picking up her dribble here, in the corner of all places, and it nearly results in a turnover.

6:01 — Off-ball guard Hannah Jump checks in for combo guard Anna Wilson, a good adjustment to beat UConn’s zone.

4:52 — Lexie has spent much of the first quarter dying on screens. The Huskies are clearly targeting her, given that VanDerveer likes to match her up against better opposing wings, despite her screen navigation skills generally lacking.

4:49 — Another good Hull play, this time heady work from Lacie to take away a board.

4:26 — A natural consequence of playing center Fran Belibi is often having to play drop coverage. This means Wilson has to either go under Nelson-Ododa’s ball screen — which Lacie had already allowed a few open Williams threes by doing — or go over and give up the pull-up middy.

3:25 — With Edwards in foul trouble, UConn has to play wing Evina Westbrook at the four. It takes 25 seconds, but on the subsequent possession, Stanford gets Jones attacking downhill against her for an easy two.

2:30 — With the Huskies scrambling to rotate, Lacie beats two off the dribble to get a wide-open eight-foot pull-up, and misses. On the other end, she gets beat off the bounce by off-ball guard Azzi Fudd, who hits the open pull-up middy.

0:17 — The Cardinal beat the press and get the ball to a wide-open Wilson at the slot… who promptly takes a dribble, picks it up, and passes to the key to reset. Wilson is rightfully reluctant, given her three-point accuracy, but Stanford misses an opportunity while highlighting an unforced coaching error: Stanford’s backcourt right now is Wilson and the Hull sisters, while UConn’s is Bueckers, point guard Nika Mühl, and Fudd. There’s no reason why VanDerveer should have both Wilson and Lacie in while Mühl, a non-scorer, is on the court.

Second quarter

9:24 — Lexie bobbles a perfect bounce pass from Wilson, turning a layup into a turnover.

8:03 — Lexie has played 35 games this year — 11 of those were bad shooting nights from three (either 0-for or 1-for-6 shooting); only seven of those were around her season average of 40% from deep; 17 of those were very good shooting nights. The point is: she’ll almost always shoot either really well or really poorly, and the difference is clear. And she just completely bricked an open catch-and-shoot three; she’s now 0-for-3 from the field and 0-for-2 from the line.

7:53 — Lexie tries driving against Williams, and bricks a heavily-contested pull-up. She needs some time to cool off. She’s not going to get it.

6:49 — Oh hey, off-ball guard Jana Van Gytenbeek is checking in, for… Jump? Jump just committed a turnover, but hasn’t played particularly poorly. Covering Husky off-ball guard Caroline Ducharme, Van Gytenbeek is giving up seven inches in her matchup.

6:30 — Belibi played for only a few possessions in the first quarter, and caused the aforementioned drop-coverage problems while committing a bad turnover into the UConn press. In her first possession this quarter, she loses Westbrook, her defensive assignment, to allow an open corner three.

6:23 — Lacie has a clear runway to the rim, with the only thing in her way being Ducharme, a very poor point-of-attack defender. Lacie flubs the relatively open layup.

5:42 — Brink takes a forearm to the face on a post-up, and it’s not hard to miss. This is a well-officiated game overall, but Nelson-Ododa is often the beneficiary of held whistles in big spots, and a couple missed calls on her are going to be important in crunch time.

5:13Now Nelson-Ododa picks up her second foul. Edwards already has two, so this should be an opportunity for Brink and Belibi (both currently on the floor) to attack.

5:02 — Here’s an entire offensive possession. Let’s walk through the main problems:

  1. Stanford has three matchups to hunt: Brink-Nelson-Ododa, since the Husky center just picked up her second foul; Belibi-Westbrook, since it’s a wing guarding a center; and Jones-Ducharme, since it’s a weak off-ball guard against a big wing.
  2. Belibi does a poor job of establishing an entry point, and Lexie doesn’t feel good about throwing a lob with Nelson-Ododa lurking on the backside.
  3. Belibi does get the ball, but it’s at the elbow. She could still drive straight downhill, until the Cardinal have three non-bigs cut to the paint for a floppy* for some reason.
  4. The ball goes to Lexie, who’s a well-below-average finisher, with the 6’2 Ducharme on one side and an excellent defender in Williams on the other.

4:12 — Jones settling for a 15-foot pull-up against Ducharme is absolutely killer for Stanford’s offense. She easily takes Ducharme deep into the paint on the Cardinal’s next possession (though that is in semi-transition).

3:30 — Belibi is slow to recover out to Westbrook on the pin-and-pop, giving up an open three. That’s not really Belibi’s fault; it’s pretty much what VanDerveer is deliberately giving up by allowing that matchup to happen in the first place. But with Westbrook now 2-for-3 from deep, it’s very much found money for UConn.

3:21 — lmao. Also, Stanford needs to hammer this over and over again.

2:55 — Lexie gets stuck on a Nelson-Ododa screen, forcing her to pick up the big as she rolls to the block. This forces Belibi to stunt, and now Westbrook’s 3-for-4 from three.

1:54 — Center Ashten Prechtel’s now in, for some reason. Regardless, Lacie leads a fast break, throws a terrible kick-out to an open Jump, who smoothly gathers it and cans a three from the wing. Since Lexie was in the corner on that same side of the court, Bueckers, the lone defender out there, had to pick one player to cover while leaving open another 40%+ shooter.

1:25 — Stanford runs another 4-5 PnR, Jones easily beating Westbrook downhill for a layup. This has been a smart, well-coached 9-3 Cardinal run.

Halftime

Here’s what we know at the break:

  • Lexie is playing extremely poorly at both ends
  • Lacie has been somewhat poor, but less impactful overall
  • This is a poor matchup for Belibi, unless she’s imposing her will against UConn’s backup “fours” (Westbrook and Ducharme)
  • Jones needs to work harder to get into the paint
  • Stanford needs to hunt mismatches and Huskies in foul trouble, both because those are breeding further mismatches, and because UConn is matching up well against the Cardinal’s natural offensive flow

Third quarter

7:42 — Bueckers curls off a twirl*, and she’s got the jumper open because Lexie doesn’t have the agility to follow tightly around Edwards’ screen. Stanford only has one player capable of that, but she’s following around Fudd, the Huskies’ top off-ball threat. So the only way Stanford can prevent this in the future is by switching.

Watch the bottom of the screen:

7:03 — Stanford counters with a twirl* of its own, but it’s a pop instead of a curl. Open three for Prechtel.

6:17 — Jones is establishing an easy entry target against Westbrook, but Wilson isn’t comfortable getting around Fudd’s ball pressure to make an entry. Given the game flow, VanDerveer can’t afford to have anyone who can’t throw a good post entry on the floor.

4:59 — Within one possession, Lacie turns down two good looks from three and misses an open corner three; meanwhile Jones declines to take the smaller and weaker Bueckers one-on-one, in favor of a PnR in which she gets Edwards hedging to force a late-clock three.

3:59 — Lexie turns down an open pull-up three on the wing to attack a lane that doesn’t exist. On a baseline out-of-bounds (BLOB), Stanford runs a nifty play to create an open three near the key for Pretchel, a career-33.2% three-point shooter, by having an inverted screen set for her by Jump, a career-41.1% three-point shooter (per Pivot Analysis). The Cardinal are getting far too cute in a game in which they’ve only scored 31 points.

3:18 — That’s another positive Lacie impact.

2:58 — Brink sets a zipper for Jones, then flips around on Edwards for good post position while Jones gets the ball at the key. Jones bounces a smooth post entry, Brink gets two easy points. That’s the good stuff right there.

1:20 — The additional value of having Jump on the court is that UConn is forced to put a good defender on her — in this case Williams. The cascading effect is that Lexie is guarded by Westbrook, a matchup that’s a lot kinder to Lexie. Unfortunately for the Cardinal, she’s still missing threes, only now they’re ones that are less contested.

0:37 — Hey, Jump can throw a decent post-entry!

0:02.7 — Why is Lacie taking a half-court heave and not Jump, who’s taken over three times as many “deep” threes over the past two years? (per CBB Analytics)

Fourth quarter

Stanford has hit literally one back cut or 45 cut all game. Whatever VanDerveer’s going to do this quarter, it better not be similar to the previous three.

9:18 — I’m not sure why big Kiki Iriafen is in to start the quarter, given that neither Brink nor Belibi are in foul trouble and Prechtel just got a few minutes in the third quarter. Iriafen quickly gives up an and-one on a Nelson-Ododa spin move.

The willingness to play Iriafen shows VanDerveer is willing to dip into the deep bench here, but doing so while leaving in both Hulls is confounding.

8:52 — Jump throws a heck of a bounce pass on a BLOB to Jones under the rim, leading to a smooth turnaround bucket. Jump is producing.

7:35 — Brink picks up her fourth foul. That’s not always called a foul, and Nelson-Ododa has made worse arm-to-arm contact in this game on multiple occasions; but when it’s done from behind, there’s usually a whistle.

6:38 — I am once again unsure why Prechtel’s on the court against a Westbrook-Nelson-Ododa frontcourt. And because she’s a far worse PnR big than Brink or Belibi, she doesn’t roll into the pocket Jones creates, and the ball dribbles out for a turnover.

5:52 — Another positive Lexie play, as she jumps to deflect Bueckers’ entry attempt, leading to a turnover. (On that note, Bueckers’ vision and passing in this game have been shockingly poor.)

5:44 — Bueckers jumps a predictable Lexie pass from the wing to the key — something Stanford’s done in this game as part of its early offense more times than I can count. After a sequence of offensive possessions for the Cardinal that has included two missed threes on pretty good looks for Jump, a Brink offensive foul, literally the only back cut they’ve converted all night, and Prechtel’s bad roll, Stanford trails 49-41.

VanDerveer and co. do a pretty good job after the following media timeout of scripting offense and competing until the final buzzer. But ultimately, this was too big a hole to climb out of.


* See this guide to off-ball screens

Written by Em Adler

Em Adler (she/they) covers the Seattle Storm and college basketball for The Next, while also writing for The Chronicle, Duke's independent student paper

2 Comments

  1. Dana on April 4, 2022 at 1:29 pm

    Wow what a hack job you did on Stanford. I was pretty sure you didn’t care for the Cardinal because of your constant comments about Cameron’s fouls but you really outdid yourself with your coverage of this game. It is really disgraceful that you found it necessary to cover this game virtually minute by minute. Your lambasting of college students was shameful–these are young women giving their all every single game while studying at one of most prestigious and difficult universities in America.
    It was a terrible and uncharacteristic game for Stanford-one of the worst I’ve ever seen in 30+ years. The coaching staff and players seemed to be overwhelmed which is really unusual. A couple of paragraphs from you would have been sufficient. When you win over 1000 games let us know. Maybe then you might be qualified to give such criticism.

    • Em Adler on April 4, 2022 at 2:26 pm

      My intention was not to be overly critical of students, but rather to point out how the hottest team in the country lost to a two-seed that just lost a player in its eight-woman rotation; because we talk a lot about how coaches “fail to adjust” their gameplans, but we often don’t explain what that means, and this provided an opportunity to do so in full. I only took three semesters of civil engineering, but I can still tell you what caused the Hyatt Regency walkway collapse.
      And for what it’s worth, I’m on the record here as having had Cameron Brink third in my National Player of the Year voting and Haley Jones sixth. I noted Brink’s fouling because of how extreme it was, same with Liz Scott and Angel Reese and Indiana’s reliance on its starters.

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