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Cardinal have momentum heading into NCAA Tournament

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Kaylee Johnson goes up for a shot in the Pac-12 semis against Oregon.
USA TODAY Sports Images

Stanford is on its longest break from games since December, and the Cardinal are keeping busy while they wait for Selection Monday to find out where the madness will begin.

The Cardinal flexed their defensive and rebounding muscles during the Pac-12 tournament, especially in the battle of attrition against Oregon State. But the focus in the gym this week is the offense, said head coach Tara VanDerveer.

“I really felt all year that this was a tournament team,” VanDerveer said, emphasizing the quality depth that allows the Cardinal to view up to seven players as “starters.”

“I thought in this tournament everyone expanded their game in a different way,” she said. "Bri (Roberson) was pushing the tempo more. Her defense was phenomenal, but she has been playing great defense all year. Marta (Sniezek) played great defense and her defense really stepped up in this tournament. Karlie (Samuelson) was really steady and she played a lot.

"Bird (Erica McCall) rebounded and played great defense. Kayl (Kaylee Johnson) scored for us above her average. Alanna (Smith) scored for us. Britt’s (Brittany McPhee) passing was phenomenal against Washington State. Everyone stepped up in some aspect of their game.”

Johnson’s performance in the semifinal win against Oregon (11 points, 12 rebounds and two blocks) was a welcome experience given the time she missed this season because of a stress fracture in her foot.

It wasn’t until about “four or five games” into the season that Johnson and the Stanford staff realized the extent of the problem. After staying off the court for more than a month, Johnson said she felt like a freshman again while she tried to reacquaint herself with the rhythm of the game.

She credited her teammates and coaches for helping her stay positive.

“It’s been frustrating … from the selfish, individual performance level it has been my least favorite season,” she said. “But overall, because of this team and every single girl, this has been my absolute favorite season. Even though I missed half of it I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I would do it all over again if I could because I love them so much. I’m really excited to see what we can do.”

Johnson is a key part of Stanford’s steadfast defense, which has several players capable of matching up against a variety of different kinds of scorers. Samuelson, who may one day become a coach, said one reason Stanford is so effective is what VanDerveer refers to as "scout defense."

“We just like to take away what the other team does best and that’s all Tara and our coaches,” she said. “They really look into things. We had similar plans when we played them (Oregon State) earlier in the season, but we tweaked some things and we tweaked the right things.”

Samuelson’s defensive intensity has been a strength since she was a kid playing against her sisters, Bonnie and Katie Lou. She described her sisters as better offensive players, so Karlie needed to be a tough defender.

But Samuelson has expanded her scoring ability, which has always been among the league’s best from the two lines, free throw and three-point. And she has a knack for swinging momentum when measured by one unofficial statistic: After at least 10 plays this season in which she made a shot, had an assist or took a charge, the opposing team took a timeout.

“She’s in a lot of great plays,” VanDerveer said. “She’s a very heady player. She’s a very unselfish player. She’s really a very skilled player. The main thing is she’s playing really, really well.”

Another unofficial strength that goes beyond statistics for the Cardinal is the impact of benergy.

For those who don’t follow in the age of jamming words together to make new ones, that term is the combination of bench and energy. A staple of Stanford women’s basketball, VanDerveer refers to it often and it was notably on display in the tournament.

While she was injured Johnson was a "benergy leader," but there is now controversy about her place on the All-Benergy team.

“They said I was kicked off of the benergy team because I started,” she laughed.

“D (Dijonai Carrington) has the funniest celebrations. She’s always over there swinging her arms and she’s on the court half the time celebrating. Shannon (Coffee) is up there. Shannon is very photogenic. She takes the best photos during her celebrations.

"There’s not a benergy MVP. Even when the starters are off (the court) they’re cheering for everyone who goes in. I think that is why benergy is benergy and it works. It’s not just one person doing it.”

The Cardinal know they are only guaranteed one more game to showcase their benergy, defensive intensity and the it-can-be-anyone-any-night offense.

“There’s nothing more motivating than that,” Johnson said. “I think it becomes really visible when you see we do have this chemistry and we are in a rhythm. I think that’s going to be really important.”

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