CardinalSportsReport - Stanford wants to earn an "A" in aggressiveness in Lexington
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Stanford wants to earn an "A" in aggressiveness in Lexington

Kaylee Johnson fights for a loose ball against Colorado.
Kaylee Johnson fights for a loose ball against Colorado. (Bob Drebin/

It wasn’t difficult to spot the word that best described Stanford’s mindset for the NCAA Tournament wins over Gonzaga and Florida Gulf Coast University: “Aggressive.” It came up repeatedly from coaches and players as the Cardinal worked to be the aggressor on the court from tip-off in both games.

Don’t expect that to change when the Cardinal (24-10) get to Lexington, Kentucky for the Sweet 16 matchup with No. 1 seed Louisville (32-2).

There are a number of ways to try to measure that intangible with stats -- such as rebounds and points in the paint -- but it’s an eye test more than anything. It’s a test the Cardinal knew they needed to pass, and they spent plenty of time discussing it before the first round game against Gonzaga.

“Talking about it and actually applying it was the biggest difference from the Pac-12 Tournament final and these past couple games,” said forward Kaylee Johnson, a senior captain. “We’re always talking about what we need to do. We know we need to be physical, we need to be aggressive and we know we need to focus.

“But we didn’t do any of that the final game against Oregon. It’s a huge thing the coaches have talked about these past couple weeks is don’t just talk about it, be about it. How we practice is how we’re going to play. That’s something we really did focus on to really be aggressive in practice.”

Stanford lost 77-57 to Oregon in the conference tournament final March 4 and was overwhelmed by the scoring ability of the Ducks. It was a reminder that Stanford is a good team, but to be great requires a high work rate to beat the best.

Brittany McPhee was named to the USA TODAY Women’s Basketball All-America third team two weeks ago, which marks an improvement over last season when Stanford had no all-america recognition on any team. The Cardinal relied on a “it ain’t pretty, it’s gritty” approach to reach the Final Four last season and will need to do so again against an elite opponent.

And elite is how to describe Louisville. The Cardinals are led by All-American guard/ACC Player of the Year Asia Durr.

It will take four quarters of high-level physicality and focus for the Cardinal to beat the home-state team in front what’s likely to be a large, partisan crowd.

“I definitely think we have been more aggressive,” Johnson said. “We can be more consistent and apply it over all four quarters. Obviously we had a great first quarter (Monday) and not so great second quarter. We came out better in the third quarter. Happy to see the progress, but we know from here on out we’re going to need all four quarters.”

There are two young players who Stanford can count on to constantly be in attack mode, although they go about it in different ways. Freshman Kiana Williams is becoming a star in front of our eyes and her proud “mom”, sophomore DiJonai Carrington, is a force off the bench.

The two are inseparable off the court and Carrington has taken to calling Williams “her child.” And if there’s one area that the whole team, and not just Williams, looks up to Carrington it’s to emulate her aggressiveness.

“Having someone like Dijonai, who you know every time she's playing, she's going to come out and give a 110 percent,” said Alanna Smith after the win over Gonzaga. “She's like leader of the ‘aggressive club’, we like to call it. So you know you can rely on Dijonai to be there and give energy, and so she's one of the leaders in the team in that department I think, and we're really lucky to have someone like that.”

Her Hall of Fame coach couldn’t agree more: “(I) love her physicality. (She is) someone that has been great to work with. I think she's really improved. You know, it's different than high school. She was hurt in high school a lot, but she's healthy and she's playing really, really well. You know, I'm not allowed to have a favorite player, but if I did, she'd be right up there. I love her energy and how hard she plays. She makes things happen.”

The same could be said of Williams.

The San Antonio native makes the game of basketball look easy and her movements often seem effortless, so there isn’t the same physical presence that is easy to spot with some of her teammates. But there was a sequence against Gonzaga when she ripped the ball from the arms of a Zag, raced up the court and made a difficult finish look simple.

“My teammates, they have so much confidence in me,” she said after the first round win. “It's hard to like just think about what I'm doing. I just go out there and play my game, and our seniors and upperclassmen, they are telling me to stay aggressive and keep playing my game, so that's what I do.”

Stanford seems to be playing its best at the right time, which so often seems to be the case with VanDerveer’s teams.