No. 18 Arizona women’s basketball opened Pac-12 play with a dominant win over ASU on Thursday. No. 2 Stanford defeated its rival California on Dec. 23 before defeating the Sun Devils on New Year’s Eve. The two teams meet on Monday, Jan. 2 at 12:30 p.m. MST in what will be the Wildcats’ third game in less than five days.
It’s not like the Cardinal need any kind of added advantage. Stanford has the coach who has won more games than anyone else and a steady stream of talent. It’s been more than enough to dominate the series between the two programs.
The series began on Jan. 3, 1979. It stands at 73-11 in Stanford’s favor. The Wildcats have been trying to close that gap over the past several years, though. Despite winning just one of the past 10 games, the margin of victory has been shrinking.
Stretching back to the 2018-19 season when Arizona won its WNIT title, Stanford’s superiority has been 11.3 points per game. Four of the seven games have been decided by single digits with three of those decided by less than five points. The Wildcats’ lone win over that stretch came in McKale Center on Feb. 28, 2020, when they were victorious in overtime by the score of 73-72.
That’s the past, though. What about this year’s Stanford team?
Channel Tree Sports has us covered. We reached out to Stanford expert Grant Avalon, who provided us erudite answers to our uninformed questions.
Arizona Desert Swarm’s question: At the end of the summer, Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer said that they would play big a lot this year with Haley Jones at the point guard position. How much has Jones played the position and how’s the point guard position performing, in general?
Channel Tree Sports’ answer: “She has the ball in her hands quite a bit as a primary or secondary playmaker, but the point guard position has been taken over by Talana Lepolo. The team currently has its highest assist-turnover rate since 2013-14, and a big part of that is point guard play. Talana is more of a true point guard than Anna was last year. Haley is having an excellent senior season, averaging 3.9 assists herself and making the play whenever the team needs one. And of course, we all know she excels as a scoring guard.”
Q: Cameron Brink is one of the best players in the country. Her Achilles heel has always been fouls, though. How much has she improved in that area, especially against the better teams on the schedule?
A: “Cam’s fouls per 40 have decreased each year she has been at Stanford, without sacrificing anything in terms of blocking shots. Right now she sits at 4.4 fouls per 40, and she normally isn’t asked to play big minutes. However, her foul trouble has still cropped up against the better teams. She committed 4 fouls against Tennessee in a game the Cardinal trailed entering the final period. Most importantly, she fouled out in just 23 minutes against South Carolina, which was a big part of the reason they couldn’t get it done in overtime. She was the best player on the court that day, scoring 25 and blocking 4 shots. Stanford has plenty of size, and talented size, on the bench, but there is only one Cameron Brink.”
Q: Stanford always has a great freshman class. Which newcomer is having the biggest impact and how is she impacting the team?
A: “Talana Lepolo has been a revelation. She had 11 assists in her first collegiate game, and quickly locked down the starting role. She’s played the third most minutes on the team behind Haley Jones and Hannah Jump and averages a team-high 4.8 assists per game. She brings dynamism and playmaking ability to the point guard position that was lacking last year after Kiana Williams graduated. Talana makes the players around her better. Of course, she still looks like a freshman at times and has made some inopportune turnovers, but she is not afraid of any moment.”
Q: What’s the biggest difference between this year’s team and the one that barely missed its second straight shot at the title last season?
A: “There are significant personnel changes, and players like the Hulls and Anna Wilson are greatly missed. The frontcourt is better than ever, as players like Brink and Kiki Iriafen have continued to develop. Freshman Lauren Betts has been one of the most efficient players in the country, albeit in somewhat limited minutes. They have improved on the offensive and defensive glass, and have taken some games over with paint scoring. That said, the point of attack defense is not where it was a year ago, and turnover issues continue to manifest.”
Q: If you had to point out the biggest strength of the team that Arizona needs to worry about, what would it be and why?
A: “Arizona needs to protect the paint. This means not only keeping the bigs out of deep post position, but also keeping ball handlers out of the middle of the court. Tara’s offense can find myriad ways to score. The key is to force them into ways with more variance. Against Cal they put up 36 points in the paint in the first half alone. You have to disrupt the offense and force this team to hit jump shots. There are many capable shooters, but outside of Hannah Jump no one is exactly automatic.”
Q: Prediction. How do you think the game will progress and do you have a score prediction?
A: “I think Arizona will push Stanford and keep it close, but the Cardinal depth and upperclassmen will ultimately grind out a 75-62 win.”