April 2, 2021
The secret weapons that can help Stanford win it all
And Arizona charts a new course
Welcome to The Next: A basketball newsroom brought to you by The IX. 24/7/365 women’s basketball coverage, written, edited, and photographed by our young, diverse staff, dedicated to breaking news, analysis, historical deep dives, and projections about the game we love.
Subscribe to make sure this vital work, creating a pipeline of young, diverse media professionals to write, edit and photograph the great game, continues, and grows. Paid subscriptions include some exclusive content, but the reason for subscriptions is a simple one: making sure our writers and editors creating 24/7/365 women’s basketball coverage get paid to do it.
There’s no doubt about it. Stanford is a threat up and down the bench. Head coach Tara VanDerveer has no shortage of weapons to turn to in any given situation.
But you might not know it from the way The Cardinal played in their first half against Louisville on Tuesday. They were held to just 26 points, with Kiana Williams seeing a particularly rough start and missing 11 of her first 12 shots. It was one of the team’s worst halves of the entire season.
VanDerveer must’ve sparked something in her team at the break. Stanford managed to find their rhythm and came out on top against the Cardinals, 78-63, to advance to the Final Four. They’ve got some tricks up their sleeves, but will those tricks work against South Carolina?
Hull holding it down
Junior guard Lexie Hull was one of few Stanford players that were showing strong energy early in the game. She ended up scoring 21 points in her 38 minutes played.
Her presence under the basket was huge, and crucial to keeping her team in the game despite the lack of offense early on. She hauled in nine rebounds and swiped away three steals throughout the game.
Hull’s high energy out of the gate was pivotal to the eventual turnaround and comeback for Stanford. When you’re down bad, it’s easy to get wrapped up in the moment and let it get in your head. It can affect your play.
But having that teammate that is constantly picking you up is so valuable and, as we saw Tuesday, can help change the tide of a game.
And even though punching a ticket to the Final Four after a hard-fought comeback must feel pretty good, Hull knows they can’t have another bad start against South Carolina.
“I think we need to come out for 40 minutes,” Hull said. “South Carolina is a very skilled and talented team and I think if we come out in that first half playing like we did against Louisville, we’ll dig ourselves too big of a hole and that can’t happen again. We need to come out ready, come out aggressive and not hold back.”
Lexie’s sister, Lacie, only saw three minutes of action Tuesday, but did haul in one rebound for her team. The dynamic between the sisters has been big for team chemistry this season and Vanderveer believes having the Hull’s on her team is yet another secret weapon for the Cardinal.
“I really think having sisters on your team is so beneficial because this team to me has been a team of sisterhood,” VanDerveer said. “If you aren’t really a family, or you don’t really care about each other, 100 days on the road could really get old … I think they really enjoy being around each other and they want to win for each other and play hard for each other. When you have that sisterhood, it is really special.”
Where do I even begin with Ashten Prechtel?
The sophomore forward spent the entire first half on the bench, but played 16 minutes in the second half. In 16 minutes, she put up 16 points. Now that’s a Sweet Sixteen.
If Lexie Hull started the fire that helped Stanford charge back, Prechtel poured gasoline on the flames.
She was scoring, she was blocking (2), she was rebounding (3). Everywhere you looked, there was Prechtel. In addition to her own buckets, she tacked on four assists to help her team battle back from the 12 point deficit at the start of the third quarter.
The fourth quarter was kick-started by a Prechtel three, which led to Stanford scoring the first 10 points of the frame. In the second half, she didn’t miss a shot from the field, going 6-of-6, including three from beyond the arc.
“Ashten was a two-way player, her three was the shot that just said, ‘Alright we’re back,’” said VanDerveer. “We can win this game. Really exciting to see her play well. She’s been doing great things for us all year. She really picked a great time to shine.”
This is what sets VanDerveer’s team apart. You can have someone like Prechtel on the sidelines for an entire half, and then call her up, expecting a lot of her in a big moment. And she’ll deliver.
This kind of depth could be the key to taking down South Carolina and advancing to the championship.
“For sure, it was tough not to play in the first half,” Prechtel said after the game. “I was nervous. We didn’t want to go home. Coming out of halftime, there was urgency.”
There will be no shortage of urgency in Friday’s matchup. And Coach has options.
VanDerveer can either utilize a constant rotation of players, like she has throughout the season. Or she can stick to a squad that is really synergizing, like she did in the second half Tuesday, when she kept Anna Wilson, Kiana Williams, Haley Jones, Lexie Hull and Prechtel out on the floor for nearly the entire half.
Kiana Williams did not look like she was having fun during the first half of the game. She came out flat, was struggling with her shot and just looked like she was playing too tightly.
She finally got going in the second half, hitting four shots in a row to help Stanford build its lead.
With a little over three minutes left in the game, Williams drained a step-back three that sealed Stanford’s victory Tuesday night.
“I just had to change my mentality,” Williams said after the game. “I was forcing things, I wanted it too bad. I didn’t let the game come to me. Tara got on me, my coaches got on me, and my teammates picked me up. I just had to change my mentality coming back in the second half.”
Kiana’s key will be playing her own game. She can’t be too much in her own head, so she’ll just have to let the game flow. Luckily, she has a slew of teammates she can put her trust in in what is sure to be a tough fight against the Gamecocks.
Finding a balance between a sense of urgency and not wanting It too much will be a delicate process for Stanford moving forward. With each win, the Cardinal is one step closer to VanDerveer’s first national championship since 1992.
Wildcats clawing into the history books
In other Pac-12 news, Arizona is heading to the Final Four for the first time in program history. Led by Pac-12 Player of the Year Aari McDonald, the Wildcats were in complete control in their 66-53 victory Monday night against No. 4 Indiana.
McDonald propelled her team into the next round with a 33-point night, her second game in a row topping 30 points. Arizona will now face the UConn Huskies in their Final Four match-up Friday night.
Don’t get me wrong, I was pretty hyped for Caitlin Clark vs Paige Bueckers. But I may be even more pumped about Aari McDonald vs Paige Bueckers.
McDonald dominates on both sides of the court. Not only can she drop 30-plus points in a game, she can also take that ball away from you (1 steal), grab it off the glass (11 rebounds), and pass it along to powerful teammates like Trinity Baptiste and Sam Thomas (4 assists).
She’s about as versatile as they come. She boasts multiple defensive honors on top of being Arizona’s all-time leading scorer, including Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year (2020, 2021), Pac-12 All-Defense (2019, 2020, 2021), and so many more.
It will be a joy to watch her not just guard Bueckers, but go shot for shot with her. Bueckers dropped 28 points against Baylor in UConn’s Elite 8 match-up and was just named AP Player of the Year.
“First thing we absolutely have to do is play Arizona defense,” head coach Adia Barnes said about the upcoming game. “We’ve gotten here because of our defense, and it creates offense for us so we have to play our style of defense … We absolutely cannot let [UConn] control the tempo and you have to make them work for hard shots.”
Final Four Match-Ups
Both games will take place Friday, April 2. All listings are in Pacific Standard Time.
No. 1 Stanford vs No. 1 South Carolina, 3 p.m. (ESPN)
No. 1 UConn vs No. 3 Arizona, 6:30 p.m. (ESPN)