By Morris Phillips
STANFORD, CA–Famously, Tara VanDerveer has said in the past, “I don’t like upsets.”
The Hall of Fame coach, now in her 36th season at Stanford with an NCAA record 1,141 victories has a built a basketball institution on the Farm by embracing the role of the favorite and squeezing every ounce of competitiveness from her athletes, a comprehensive list of All-Americans, WNBAers, and players who have gone on to become successful coaches in their own right.
VanDerveer–like any coach stuck in the gym year-after-year and needing new motivations–also appreciates competition.
Currently, and apparently going forward, Arizona’s Adia Barnes is providing that competition. A healthy crowd, and a national television audience got a taste of the high-level matchup on Sunday, in No. 2 Stanford’s 75-69 win over No. 8 Arizona. Barnes, the all-time leading scorer at Arizona, and head coach now in her sixth season is on a trajectory that’s rivaled only by VanDerveer and Connecticut’s Geno Auriemma.
Game recognizes game, and it embraces that game as well.
That’s the kind of game that we’ve been playing with Tennessee and South Carolina,” VanDerveer said after the game. “They’re a great team. We could be playing them again in the Pac-12 Tournament. We stay healthy, they get healthy, we’re both going to NCAA Tournament.”
The level of play amongst the nation’s best women’s programs continues to rise, as does interest and broadcast ratings. WNBA expansion is in the air, as well as an infusion of capital to grow the world’s most prestigious professional league. To live up to the hype, the talent has to match the aspirations. On Sunday, the talent was on display at Stanford.
Cameron Brink, a thin, long-armed 6’4″ forward was Sunday’s biggest talent. Brink led Stanford with 25 points, 15 rebounds and three blocks. Barnes and the Wildcats came in preoccupied with 6’1″ Haley Jones, adjusting their lineup to matchup with Stanford’s singular talent, but Brink quickly proved that the Cardinal have two matchup nightmares. Brink’s blessed with great hands to go with her length, and at points in the game, she was playing volleyball with the basketball… by herself.
“Cameron did a really good job of asserting herself and just kind of bulldozing us,” Barnes said. “I thought we had to be a lot more physical with her.”
Brink made eight of her first 10 shots, and registered a double-double in the first half alone (10 points, 11 rebounds). But typical of Stanford, Brink had to share the spotlight. Jana Van Gytenbeek, like Brink also a sophomore, light it up from deep, contributing a career-best six 3’s on her way to 18 points. Four of those six came in the decisive, second quarter as Stanford got hot and a stretched their one-point lead to eight.
“Jana really made a statement how hard she played, offensively, defensively, knocking down her shot she stretches the defense,” VanDerveer said. “It was really exciting for her. We had the 1-2 punch, the inside and outside. I love it.”
“The end of the second quarter really hurt us,” Barnes said. “And then in the fourth quarter, we just got murdered inside. I think as a team we just got to do a better job of crowding and making it more difficult.
“Jana and Cameron killed us, together over 40 points. That can’t happen.”
Throughout, both teams spaced the floor offensively in a manner that’s typical of women’s professional game. The mindset on each side was to attack of the dribble, get to the basket or find shooters. And what really caught everyone’s attention was how ready and willing the shooters were. Van Gytenbeek was the biggest catch-and-shoot nightmare, but Arizona’s Cate Reese and Bendu Yeaney were ready to pull the trigger too with Shaina Pellington the playmaking driver who has most embodies what Arizona lost in All-American Ari McDonald, a top pick in last spring’s WNBA draft.
Pellington was trouble on the defensive end as well, part of a multi-headed monster that took on the task of getting Jones stopped. And in the absence of a defining victory, Arizona could claim a win in their battle to stop Jones, a player who’s way too fluid for her size with great balance, and the ability to pile up big numbers over smaller players in the paint. But Barnes envisioned a plan to control Jones and it worked.
Jones came in averaging 13 points, four assists, but was held to 2 of 12 shooting, and committed six turnovers. At points, Jones appeared demoralized, but in those moments, she could be seen glancing at the scoreboard, giving herself a reminder that her subpar play wasn’t negatively affecting the team.
In the last six seasons, Arizona’s rise has been meteoric. Barnes returned to Arizona where she was a standout all-conference player from 1994 to 1998, after serving as an assistant under Mike Neighbors at Washington. Neighbors specializes in developing clubs that seek 3-point opportunities relentlessly, and run in a Paul Westhead-type fervor to create those opportunities. Barnes adopted that style and added her own personal grit from her playing days when she took over an Arizona program that had lost its way, finishing in the lower half of the Pac-12 standings more often that not.