November 12, 2023
Kiki Iriafen is the key to Stanford’s success
'She is going to surprise a lot of people this year.'
STANFORD, Calif. — About halfway through the second half of Stanford’s season opener against Hawaii last Wednesday, junior forward Kiki Iriafen left the court with a leg injury. Cue the alarm bells.
And then turn them off again. Iriafen returned a few minutes later, having worked out a cramp in her leg that she got while jumping up and down cheering for her teammates. Such is the importance of Iriafen to Stanford’s success this season that a short and ultimately departure was worthy of having the entire season flash before one’s eyes.
Senior Cameron Brink is the centerpiece of this program, there is no doubt about that. But without Iriafen, the Cardinal’s Final Four ambitions would look much, much more precarious.
The Next and The Equalizer are teaming up
The Next is partnering with The Equalizer to bring more women’s sports stories to your inbox. Subscribe to The Next now and receive 50% off your subscription to The Equalizer for 24/7 coverage of women’s soccer.
“She’s the most improved player in the country,” Brink said of her frontcourt teammate in the aftermath of No. 15 Stanford’s 96–64 dismantling of No. 9 Indiana on Sunday at Maples Pavilion. It was the Cardinal’s largest margin of victory over a Top 15 opponent since 1999–2000.
“Her growth this year is insane. I think she is going to surprise a lot of people this year,” Brink continued.
Iriafen showed the country what is ubiquitously known as her “upside.” In 20 minutes, she finished with 20 points on 9-of-12 shooting from the floor, along with 11 rebounds. Her tandem efforts with Brink on both sides of the floor yielded a surprisingly dominant result and made Hoosiers’ All-American post Mackenzie Holmes — eight points on 3-of-12 shooting and two rebounds — virtually irrelevant to the final result.
Iriafen brings Ogwumike-like energy to the floor: long, explosive and relentless. She is a tone-setter for a team that will play a lot of combinations and a fair amount of freshmen this season. Not to mention, she is the perfect complement to Brink.
“Cam and Kiki are the foundation of this team,” Cardinal head coach Tara VanDerveer said on Sunday. “They have been playing so well together, and a lot of times, they don’t get to play together in practice, but they lead the way in scoring and in their defense.”
Last season, Iriafen came out of the gate strong, scoring in double figures in seven of her first eight games. She would score in double figures only twice the rest of the way, and scored just 16 points in Stanford’s final seven games.
Two games into her junior season, Iriafen is averaging 21.5 points and 12 rebounds, while shooting better than 73 percent from the floor. Her consistency, however, will prove critical.
Iriafen said it’s a matter of both a summer’s worth of hard work and experience. “I’m a junior now,” Iriafen said. “I go against Cameron and Nunu [Agara] and Brooke [Demetre] every single day in practice. We have some really good practice guys and just being able to score on them in practice translates into the game. It’s my third year and I just know what to expect.”
VanDerveer translated that response into one word: confidence. Fifth-year senior Hannah Jump, who specifically called out Iriafen’s improvement back on media day in Las Vegas last month, agrees.
“She had a phenomenal offseason, put in so much work and I think that’s also inspiring to our younger players,” Jump said. “She’s had a journey. She continues to work hard and now everyone is seeing the results of the work she’s put in. I’m so excited for her.”
Add Locked on Women’s Basketball to your daily routine
Here at The Next, in addition to the 24/7/365 written content our staff provides, we also host the daily Locked on Women’s Basketball podcast. Join us Monday through Saturday each week as we discuss all things WNBA, collegiate basketball, basketball history and much more. Listen wherever you find podcasts or watch on YouTube.
The reality is, this is not a Stanford team with great post depth. Brink and Iriafen will need to play together, and more importantly, they will just need to play: meaning, avoiding fouls and avoiding getting hurt.
Last year, the Cardinal was full to the brim with post players. They had Fran Belibi and Ashten Prechtel and Lauren Betts, as well as Brink and Iriafen. In fact, it was the lack of minutes to go around that was likely part of the reason Betts — the No. 1 recruit in the 2022 class — departed for UCLA after one season.
VanDerveer’s decision to hold her roster to 12 players this season is both a hedge that giving fewer players more minutes will make her team better, but also a gamble. Brink and Iriafen are the payoff and Sunday’s production of a combined 40 points and 28 rebounds — Brink also finished with four blocks — is a pretty good one.
Asked what she needs consistently from Iriafen this year, VanDerveer looked at the box score. “I like that double-double. I like 9-for-12 and 11 rebounds,” VanDerveer said. “I like that she can do that.”
Jump was on the bench with Iriafen when she got her celebration-induced cramp on Wednesday night. Was she worried? Jump’s laugh said otherwise.
“Nah, Kiki is a drama queen. We knew she was fine.”
Written by Michelle Smith
Michelle Smith has covered women's basketball nationally for nearly three decades. Smith has worked for ESPN.com, The Athletic, the San Francisco Chronicle, as well as Pac-12.com and WNBA.com. She was named to the Alameda County Women's Hall of Fame in 2015, is the 2017 recipient of the Jake Wade Media Award from the Collegiate Sports Information Directors Association (CoSIDA) and was named the Mel Greenberg Media Award winner by the WBCA in 2019.