March 30, 2024 

NC State’s successful game plan is Stanford’s demise

Wolfpack reach Elite Eight behind Aziaha James' 25-point second half

PORTLAND, Ore. — As a coach, you make a game plan.

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North Carolina State head coach Wes Moore knew that Stanford senior forward Cameron Brink was a “physical” player with a tendency to get in foul trouble. He knew that junior forward Kiki Iriafen had emerged as a go-to scorer for the Cardinal. And he knew that if his guards could attack, force Brink and Iriafen to help, draw whistles, and limit those players’ time on the floor, the matchup would suddenly look pretty good for his team.

Because if it was the Wolfpack’s quick, aggressive backcourt against Stanford’s more deliberate perimeter group, his team could make the Elite Eight for the third time in program history.

It’s nice when things work out.

A 28-10 third quarter by NC State didn’t just erase Stanford’s 10-point halftime lead; it absolutely changed the game. The third-seeded Wolfpack rode a 25-point second half by junior guard Aziaha James to a 77-67 win over the second-seeded Cardinal. (James finished with 29 points.)

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The work that the Wolfpack did to mitigate Stanford’s All-American post duo paid huge dividends.

“We knew that we had to attack their bigs,” said Wolfpack senior guard Saniya Rivers, who added 13 points and seven rebounds. “Once we got [Brink] out of there, it definitely gave us some momentum.”

Momentum indeed. NC State scored 50 of its 77 points in the second half, shooting 55.6% from the floor and 15-for-17 (88.2%) from the free-throw line. The Wolfpack built a 15-point lead with 5:02 to go and didn’t really let the Cardinal back in.

Iriafen finished with 26 points and 10 rebounds, but she played just 23 minutes. She picked up her first foul less than a minute into the game and went straight to the bench for most of the first quarter.

“When you have people fouling so quickly, we did not really get any continuity. It’s hard to figure out what to run,” Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer said. “I thought we had a really good first half, but we did not get the job done in the second half.”

Brink closed her college career by fouling out of consecutive NCAA Tournament games — the first time she’d done that since her freshman year. She departed with more than eight minutes to go and ended up with 13 points, nine rebounds and seven blocks in 24 minutes.

That was a best-case scenario for North Carolina State.

“Don’t forget that we were in foul trouble ourselves,” Moore said, as his post players River Baldwin, Mimi Collins and Lizzy Williamson had two fouls each in the first half. “We were fortunate. We were able to attack off the bounce and make the posts have to help and get them involved and that always helps.”

VanDerveer was succinct.

“We are not going to be successful with Kiki and Cam on the bench,” she said. “We didn’t do a good job of keeping our best players on the court, and on top of that, we needed more help offensively from the perimeter.”

That has been the refrain all season. In the games in which Stanford has struggled the most, it has been when the guards can’t provide enough offense. Stanford was 5-for-25 from beyond the 3-point line for the game, 2-for-13 in the second half.

What looked on paper like a favorable matchup for Stanford inside swung quickly to the backcourt matchup that made the Cardinal vulnerable, particularly when NC State spread the floor and began driving.

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The Wolfpack began the season unranked, and that rankled them. They had an early-season win over Connecticut and a 15-0 record out of the gate. That moved them to as high as No. 2 in the country. They fell to Notre Dame in the ACC Tournament title game before beginning an NCAA Tournament run that included a nail-biting win over Tennessee in the second round. And now they have a more decisive win over Stanford, their future ACC compatriot.

“We came into the season with a chip on our shoulder,” Rivers said. “We weren’t ranked at all, and when UConn came to our place and our fans were there and we beat them, it gave me a lot of confidence in this team.”

While NC State will play on, one step away from the Final Four, Stanford will go home to face an offseason of change.

A Pac-12 team no more, Stanford now officially belongs to the ACC. And NC State did not exactly roll out the welcome wagon.

Brink is bound for the WNBA Draft. Fifth-year senior guard Hannah Jump will look to continue her career professionally.

And this team will belong to Iriafen, arguably the nation’s most improved player.

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VanDerveer can only hope that some of her guards make the kind of leap that Iriafen made in the past year, that her recruits are ready to contribute immediately, and that perhaps there is some help in the transfer portal for a program that is as structurally limited on that front as any in the country. Stanford’s transfer acceptance rate is less than 2%, and graduate transfers are limited only to those who applied the previous fall.

“Every offseason is challenging,” VanDerveer said. “We lose great players because we’ve had great players to lose. Kiki will be the bright light, the inspiration for all of our young players. … We need people to get healthy and committed. People need to get in the gym and get better.

“Look at Oregon State. They are a team that won four games in the conference last year [and is now in the Elite Eight]. Their kids stuck together, they got in the gym and they got better. And that’s what we need to do.”

As a coach, you make a game plan. VanDerveer will have to wait to see how this one works out.

Written by Michelle Smith

Michelle Smith has covered women's basketball nationally for nearly three decades. Smith has worked for, The Athletic, the San Francisco Chronicle, as well as and 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.

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