STANFORD — The matchup between the top two teams in the country more than lived up to its hype.
“It was a heavyweight fight,” Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer said.
But the Cardinal’s long history of struggles in matchups between the top two teams in the country added a new and especially painful chapter on Sunday.
No. 1 South Carolina pulled off a come-from-behind 76-71 win in overtime over No. 2 Stanford in front of a raucous sellout crowd at Maples Pavilion, giving fans in the building and watching at home quite the show.
“I think this is what women’s basketball is about and has been about,” South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley said. “Now’s the time that the product that we’re putting on the floor should be seen by as many eyes as possible.”
Stanford never trailed in regulation and led by 10 after three quarters, but South Carolina clamped down on defense and charged back to force overtime, with reigning national player of the year Aliyah Boston’s mid-range touch jumper with 2.1 seconds left tying the score. The Cardinal turned the ball over on its inbounds pass to send the game to overtime.
South Carolina didn’t take its first lead of the game until two minutes into overtime, when they hit two free throws. The extra frame saw the teams trade the lead for several possessions, but with the Cardinal down one, Haley Jones had her shot blocked with 1:10 left, and South Carolina’s Bree Hall hit a 3-pointer with 41 seconds left to push the lead to four.
Sophomore Kiki Iriafen hit two free throws to cut it to two, and the Cardinal forced a turnover to get the ball back with 10 seconds left. But the Gamecocks’ stifling defense forced a five-second violation before the Cardinal could inbound the ball.
South Carolina missed both free throws with five seconds left and Iriafen grabbed the rebound, but she called timeout when the Cardinal didn’t have one. It was the final of 22 turnovers Stanford committed on Sunday.
“I think that was an unfortunate slippage … it’s not one mistake, but it’s the combination of the turnovers, not getting the ball down, taking a timeout, not boxing out,” VanDerveer said. “It’s an overtime game, but we have to be hungrier.”
Cameron Brink shined for Stanford when she was on the floor, scoring a game-high 25 points on 8-of-13 shooting and scored six of Stanford’s seven fourth quarter points. But the junior battled foul trouble all game and fouled out with 3:01 left in overtime.
VanDerveer said she thought senior Haley Jones struggled, saying the Mitty alum “could do more for us.” Jones, who had 11 points on 5-of-19 shooting (including four shots blocked), nine rebounds, six assists and four turnovers while playing all but 89 seconds of the game, agreed with the assessment.
“I could have finished more,” Jones said. “I think they did a great job defensively … but I think there was a lot that we left out there on the court that we wish we had back.”
Stanford mostly did a good job of containing Aliyah Boston, the reigning national player of the year, for three quarters — helped in part by Boston getting into early foul trouble and only playing 5.5 minutes in the first half. But Boston continued to work in the paint and finished with a 14-point, 13-rebound double-double, showing why she’s so highly touted.
“Aliyah’s going to be the number one draft pick,” VanDerveer said while sitting next to Jones, the presumed No. 2 pick in the next WNBA Draft. “She’s tough in there. She’s really strong and aggressive. I think that’s a great person for people on our team — Kiki and maybe [freshman] Lauren Betts – to really watch and say, ‘That’s what I need to be doing.”
The Cardinal is now 1-10 when playing in matchups between the top two teams in the VFAB Poll all-time, and have lost two straight to the Gamecocks. Last year, the Cardinal led by as much as 18 in Columbia, but collapsed in the second half as South Carolina stormed back to hand Stanford a 65-61 loss.
Sunday’s showdown — the 34th between the VFAB Poll’s No. 1 and No. 2 teams since 2000 — was only the second regular season women’s college basketball game broadcasted on ABC. Both programs used the spotlight to continue to keep attention on Brittney Griner’s incarceration in Russia, with each team wearing “WE ARE BG” patches and both Staley and VanDerveer wore shirts honoring Griner.
“Brittney, she’s a part of our basketball family. And she’s in a fight for her life,” Staley said, adding that she went to Stanford’s concourse to join the fans who wrote Griner a letter. “I do think that there’s a way-maker up there that’s going to make a way for her to get home a lot sooner than a lot of people are expecting. I’m one that’s going to think optimistically and prayerfully that she gets home soon.”
The spotlight will continue to shine bright on Stanford during the regular season, especially when Tennessee comes to Maples next month for another game on ABC. But even in defeat, Brink and Jones feel like the Cardinal have no reason to overthink Sunday.
“The first thing I said walking into the locker room was that we have nothing to hang our heads about. We made a lot of mistakes, but we’re a young team,” Brink said. “It was just a great experience for us … to just play through stuff like that.I think we did well, but there’s a lot of stuff to learn from.”
Jones added, “In the grand scheme of things, it’s November. It’s our first loss. So I think there’s a lot left in the tank for this team.”