March 19, 2022
How Stanford slammed its way to the second round of the NCAA Tournament
A Fran Belibi dunk highlighted a dominant first-round victory for the Cardinal
PALO ALTO, Calif. — With 6:20 remaining in the second quarter of Stanford’s win over Montana State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, Stanford’s Fran Belibi blocked Taylor Janssen’s 3-point attempt, grabbed the ball and saw an open lane to the basket. It was finally time for her to dunk at Maples Pavilion.
The entire arena exploded in cheers, and Belibi’s teammates on the bench all pretended to faint in awe.
“I got the block, which was cool, and then I was kind of dribbling down and I kind of looked over to see who was there and where she was, and then I got past the 3-point line and I kind of went for it, so it worked out,” Belibi said. “… I’ve dunked at Maples multiple times in warm-ups, as I’m sure you’ve seen. But to be able to do it in a game and to have all those fans with us and to hear the crowd for—it was a really long time. It was like 30 seconds. That’s a long time to be cheering.”
Belibi became just the third player ever to dunk in a women’s NCAA Tournament game, joining Candace Parker and Brittney Griner. It was also her first in-game dunk at Maples Pavilion. Her teammates have been begging her to dunk all season long, the fans see it every game in warm-ups, and ESPN analyst Steffi Sorensen even stood up when Belibi had the open lane and put her arm out to symbolize that she wanted Belibi to dunk. Everyone got their wish.
“I was running right behind her, and it was like, we see a potential lane, and we’re like, ‘Do it, do it, do it,’ and then when she did it, I was so excited … To be right there was super cool and definitely a memory I’ll have forever,” said senior guard Lexie Hull. “… We see it in warm-ups, but we want to see it every game.”
Stanford, the No. 1 seed in the Spokane region, dominated its first-round matchup on Friday night, defeating the Big Sky champion Montana State 78-37. The Cardinal (29-3) held the Bobcats scoreless in the first quarter, winning the opening frame 20-0. Stanford led wire to wire and by as many as 48 points.
Stanford got to play in front of a home crowd in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in three years. The fans were into the game, cheering for every basket and exploding for Belibi’s dunk. Guard Anna Wilson’s older brother and current Denver Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson was at the game, just like he was for all the Cardinal’s Pac-12 Tournament games. It was the third-largest home crowd for Stanford this season and, for many players on the roster, their first time playing in front of a home crowd during March Madness.
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“I love playing in Maples and to think about this is the last two games that I’ll ever play in Maples, it’s super special to be able to be here playing in front of friends [and] family that have come down. It’s crazy because it’s kind of full circle. Start here, end here. And just super thankful for the fans that came out tonight,” Hull said.
Offensively, Stanford is the definition of balanced. It doesn’t have one player who always leads them in scoring and can beat you in multiple ways. The Cardinal had four players in double figures on Friday and got double-doubles from Belibi and Cameron Brink. The Cardinal’s depth is large part of why they won the national championship last year, and it showed Friday night. Hannah Jump led Stanford with 15 points and made five threes off the bench. Stanford is now 45-2 over the last two seasons when Jump makes at least one three.
Stanford’s size advantage once again showed as it was able to dominate both the paint and the glass. It also looked to run in transition at every opportunity. The Cardinal had a ton of 3-point looks in transition, and every time someone hit a three, the crowd erupted—though not as much as when Belibi dunked.
And although the Cardinal offense gets a lot of the attention, their defense has been just as good this year. Having players like Lexie and Lacie Hull and Haley Jones, who are all 6’1 and have the ability to guard every position, is what has made Stanford so good defensively.
Stanford’s defense was as dominant on Friday night as it has been all season. They locked Montana State down from the start, not giving up a basket until the 9:15 mark in the second quarter. They held the Bobcats to just 23% shooting in the game and 16% from behind the 3-point arc. The Cardinal overmatched Montana State with their length and will have much tougher matchups going forward in the tournament, but their size allows them great flexibility on the defensive end. Head coach Tara VanDerveer preaches defense and was excited by the team’s performance on that side of the ball.
“I think our defense has really stepped up in the Pac-12 Tournament and obviously today … Our defense is always going to be challenged, but our defensive tone is set by Lacie, Lexie and Anna Wilson. Those three get after it defensively,” said VanDerveer. “… I think everyone’s defense has been improving, so I’m proud of that, and we’re working hard to keep improving our defense.”
Although Stanford dominated the game from start to finish, there were two areas in which it could improve. The Cardinal had issues with turnovers early in the season and seemed to shore those up over the back half of the Pac-12 season, but giveaways reared their ugly head again Friday. Two of Stanford’s three losses this season were because it struggled to hold onto the basketball. Against both Texas and South Carolina, the Cardinal had 20 turnovers, and those are both teams Stanford could see again in the NCAA Tournament. We will have to see whether this was first-game jitters or the early-season issue returning at the most crucial time of the year. If turnovers become a problem again, that will greatly reduce the Cardinal’s chances of repeating as national champions.
Stanford also got a subpar performance from First Team All-American Haley Jones, who finished with just four points on 2-for-9 shooting and had three turnovers. She looked sped-up on the floor and like she was trying to do a little too much. The junior forward has been Stanford’s rock on both sides of the floor, but it was her first game at Maples Pavilion in the NCAA Tournament, so perhaps it too was first-game jitters. Jones’ ability to turn it on was a big reason why Stanford won the Pac-12 Tournament, and the Cardinal will need her to be at her best to win a fourth national title. VanDerveer said that, while her team played well, it needs to improve some things to make a deep run.
“I tell our team, I’m kind of a greedy sucker. I don’t want any turnovers. Our defense was great, but we want to take care of the ball better and get better every game,” VanDerveer said. “But for our team to be able to do what we did tonight—this wasn’t the A-game from everyone on our team, so hopefully other people will really be able to step up … To go where we want to go, we’re going to need more Haley.”
With the win on Friday, Stanford advanced to the second round, where it will play No. 8 seed Kansas at 6 p.m. PST on Sunday.
Written by Matthew Walter
Matthew Walter covers the Las Vegas Aces, the Pac-12 and the WCC for the Next. He is a former Director of Basketball Operations and Video Coordinator at three different Division I women's basketball programs.