March 21, 2024 

Kiki Iriafen is no second fiddle for Stanford

The junior forward’s breakout season makes her the backbone of the Cardinal’s tourney hopes

Kiki Iriafen is no one’s Plan B.

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While the second-seeded Stanford Cardinal have a marquee name in Cameron Brink, Iriafen has been less a second fiddle than a perfect complement this season.

Without Brink on the floor, Iriafen has stepped up.

With Brink on the floor, Iriafen has stepped up.

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With Brink heading to the WNBA, Iriafen will need to step up as Stanford moves to the ACC next fall.

“Kiki is a force to be reckoned with,” said Cal coach Charmin Smith. “They have a great — I’m not saying Batman and Robin — those are two phenomenal post players.

As Stanford embarks on its NCAA Tournament journey on Friday at Maples Pavilion against Norfolk State, those two “phenomenal post players” will be the backbone of the team’s chance at success and a return to the Final Four after a one-year absence.

When the season began, Iriafen knew she would be counted on. The deep post corps that Stanford had over the last few seasons was gone. Lauren Betts had transferred to UCLA. Fran Belibi and Ashten Prechtel were graduating. This season, it would be Brink — who has had a tendency to get into foul trouble, limiting her minutes on the floor — and Iriafen, who had flashes last season but couldn’t contribute at a high level consistently.

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This season has been a breakthrough in every way for the junior from Southern California. Selected to the All-Pac-12 team and chosen as the conference’s Most Improved Player, Iriafen is an All-American candidate. She is averaging 18.5 points and 10.9 rebounds a game, one of five major conference players to post those numbers. It’s a huge jump from the 6.7 points and 3.8 rebounds a game she averaged last season. It’s the best single-season improvement since Erica McCall in 1999-2000.

Iriafen’s 36-point and 12-rebound performance against Oregon State on Jan. 21, the day Tara VanDerveer broke Mike Krzyzewski’s coaching record, will stand as one of the highlights of the season. Her play salvaged the celebration for Maples’ sellout crowd against a tough Beavers squad with Brink out of the game.

“She is one of the most improved players I’ve ever coached,” VanDerveer said.

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Iriafen is one of five finalists for the Katrina McClain Award, which goes to the nation’s top power forward.
The 6’3 forward didn’t begin playing basketball until the eighth grade. She is nowhere close to her ceiling.

“Kiki’s development is about pure coaching — just kidding,” VanDerveer said. “She works really hard in practice and a great opportunity, and she’s just grabbed it. She has a lot of confidence, and we have a lot of confidence in her.”

Iriafen added to VanDerveer’s thoughts.

“As Tara said, I think the biggest thing is just my confidence,” Iriafen said. “I really played very fearlessly out there. Because of that I’m able to do what I can do. I’m able to give it my all. I’m not worried about whatever outcome there is. And also that’s just my coaches pouring into me — ‘You got this, you got this, you got this.’”

Going against Brink in practice doesn’t hurt.

“Cameron is the best defensive player in the country. Having to have to go against that every single day — luckily we don’t have to do that anymore — but having to go against that in the preseason and in my prior years was really helpful for me,” Iriafen said. “She’s really long, and she’s an athletic big. So having to get around her, trying to shoot over her, I think that helped me shooting over other bigs. I think she’s the best defensive player in the country. That was helpful for my game.”

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For Brink the feeling is mutual. She believes she is a better player for going up against Iriafen.

”I think iron sharpens iron,” Brink said. “She has such a high basketball IQ. I couldn’t say enough great things about her. … She’s kind of my backbone sometimes. I’m grateful for her and her growth. I think mentally this year, I think she’s always been a phenomenal athlete and player, but mentally she’s really confident, and I’m proud of her.”

Iriafen has improved her ability to score in the paint, is a strong passer, has one of the prettiest midrange shots in the country and is working on a 3-point shot. And she has the ability to handle physical play.

In last season’s abbreviated NCAA Tournament run for the Cardinal, Iriafen played sparingly over two games, a total of 22 minutes, scoring nine points. Against Ole Miss in the Cardinal’s second-round defeat, she was scoreless in five minutes.

Her role will be much different this time around.

She will be a major player in Stanford’s postseason hopes. The Cardinal will need her to be everything she has been all season and perhaps more. It is a dress rehearsal for her senior season, when Iriafen will be playing without Brink by her side.

“I’m not going to worry about that today,” VanDerveer said. “I want her to have fun, enjoy playing and have a great tournament. I have 100% confidence in her.”

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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