Cardinal fall in face of ND offense, but the future is exciting
Stanford led Notre Dame Monday night by as many as nine before its defensive effort was overwhelmed by one of the best teams in the country, falling 84-68.
Notre Dame shot 64% in the second half after making only 25.6% of its shots in the first half. The Cardinal led by seven at the break and the pace of the game was exactly what head coach Tara VanDerveer wanted. It was a half-court chess match and that's a game VanDerveer was confident she could outmaneuver Muffet McGraw's more talented scoring team.
Stanford held Notre Dame to only 26 first half points, which was their lowest total of the season and going back to January of 2017. A combination of cold shooting and stout Stanford defense gave the Cardinal hope that their could work to upset the No. 1 seed in front of a pro-Notre Dame crowd in Chicago.
Kiana Williams described it during her interview before heading to the locker room at halftime that Stanford wanted to be patient on offense, take good shots to limit transition opportunities for Notre Dame -- masters of scoring before a defense is set -- and to take away what the Fighting Irish do best on offense.
But it didn't last. Notre Dame's starting five has combined to score more than 10,000 career points and Arike Ogunbowale is one of the best scorers in the country.
It was Jackie Young who repeatedly knifed through the Cardinal, who couldn't stop her off the dribble. Then Ogunbowale got going and Notre Dame outscored Stanford 26-13 in the third quarter -- flipping a nine-point deficit to a six-point lead.
The difference between the two halves was greatest in one stat.
Notre Dame only had 10 points in the paint in the first 20 minutes, which is typically a stat they dominate with drives by talented guards and the work of Jessica Shepard and Brianna Turner. They scored 40 of 58 second half points inside.
Like Oregon, Notre Dame's bench is not much of a factor, but McGraw's starting five is exceptional. They combined for all but four of Notre Dame's points.
That type of disparity is familiar to Stanford fans who most of the season watched the "Big Three" of Alanna Smith, Kiana Williams and DiJonai Carrington carry the offense. It was only Smith and Carrington in the first half while Williams found her footing.
Smith scored 10 points and grabbed seven rebounds in the first 20 minutes. Carrington scored 11 and most important was that she only attempted three 3FG, she made one. Carrington is best when she attacks but she sometimes settles down on the three point line.
Williams took over in the third quarter and kept Stanford in the game when the Cardinal couldn't consistently get anyone else involved. Williams scored seven points while Maya Dodson, Lexie Hull and Carrington each added two.
It was a welcome sight to see Williams get the skip back in her step and the swagger of her post-make stare at the hoop. After a miserable Sweet 16 game the sophomore finished with a team high 20 points and only three turnovers in 39 minutes. Her continued improvement is one of the most exciting developments to track for next season.
But any hope of a Stanford rally depended on Smith taking over the game. The senior wasn't able to provide that type of magic in her final game in cardinal and white.
Smith cracked the top-10 scoring list with more than 1,700 points in her career and was the second best shot blocker in program history. She also was the first player to record 70 3-pointers, 70 blocks and 600 points in a season in the last 20 years.
She did all that while earning academic All-American honors and was named the top student-athlete in the conference.
Smith fought through panic attacks and anxiety in her first two years at Stanford that at times made her wonder if it was best to return home. Her physical and mental toughness became an example for her teammates and future Cardinal to follow.
It will require multiple players to replace what Smith provided for the team, but reinforcements arrive in the form of the No. 2 recruiting class in the country. Much has already been written on Cardinal Sports Report about the quartet of Haley Jones, Ashten Prechtel, Francesca Belibi and Hannah Jump.
But a brief recap: Jones is the No. 1 recruit in the country -- a dynamic and versatile athlete who can play anywhere from point guard to forward. Prechtel is a 6-5 sweet-shooting post who also is a deft interior passer. Belibi grabs attention with her dunks, but the way to VanDerveer's heart is Belibi's work ethic, defense and rebounding. Jump is one of the best three-point shooters in the country who at the very least brings a specialist skill set while standing a sturdy 5-11.
The future is exciting for Stanford. Smith is the only starter departing from a team that won the Pac-12 Tournament, finished second during the season in the toughest conference in the country, and reached the Elite Eight. The Cardinal did all of that without Marta Sniezek -- the tough point guard who helped lead Stanford to its last Final Four -- and starting forward Nadia Fingall missed all of the Pac-12 season with a torn ACL.
Stanford defeated No. 1 Baylor and avenged its 40-point loss to Oregon Feb. 10 with a defensive masterpiece a month later. Both those teams are in the Final Four and four of Stanford's five losses came to tournament teams. It takes the best to beat Stanford. The Cardinal may soon have the team that is the last one standing.