Stanford starts to shine ahead of another Lexington Sweet 16

STANFORD, Calif. — It was the unacknowledged thoughts that permeated throughout Palo Alto in the week since the Selection Show happened.

But now, after two wins on their home floor over challenging mid-majors, Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer can finally discuss returning to what has become their old Kentucky home.

“I’m really proud of our team, especially knowing where we came from and we’re going back to Lexington,” VanDerveer said. “We love Lexington, so we’re really excited to be going there.”

The Cardinal will return to the Sweet 16 for the 11th straight season and will head to Rupp Arena in Lexington for the third year in a row after defeating 12-seed Florida Gulf Coast 90-70 on Monday night at Maples Pavilion.

Stanford started the game with its best offensive quarter of the season, dropping 33 points on the Eagles thanks to 12-of-17 shooting (including making 3-of-4 from deep) and making all six free throws.

“I thought Stanford was excellent today. Their offensive ball movement and efficiency and execution was outstanding,” Florida Gulf Coast head coach Karl Smesko said. “It was better than our defense today. I thought a big part of the game was the first quarter. We had more defensive breakdowns in the first quarter than we had the whole game against Missouri.”

While Florida Gulf Coast responded with a strong second quarter, outscoring the Cardinal 18-10 and forcing six turnovers, Stanford had an answer for each little run the Eagles had in the second half and finished the night shooting 31-of-61 from the field and 9-of-17 from beyond the arc.

“I’m really proud of our team, how hard we played,” VanDerveer said. “You know, we really came out and got off to a great start. Sputtered a little bit in the second quarter and then came out and really had a great third and fourth quarter.”

Before the matchup, Smesko quipped, “We’re not going to try to be taller than them,” in reference to Stanford’s eight players listed as 6-feet or taller going up against his Eagles, with no player reaching 6-feet. But no matter how much they tried to prepare for it, playing against that type of height proved to be a tough task for Florida Gulf Coast.

“It affected us a lot as far as going to the lane. They was way bigger than Mizzou,” said Eagles senior China Dow. “Our drives wasn’t opened, but we could have cut in penetration and do the right things when they did come over. That’s why we practiced and practiced, but it was very effective. And what he said, you know, I wish I would have grew overnight, but didn’t work out that way. Their height was very effective.”

STANFORD, CA – JANUARY 12: Stanford Cardinal guard Brittany McPhee (12) takes a break during the game between the Washington State Cougars and the Stanford Cardinals on Friday, January 12, 2018 at Maples Pavilion, Stanford, CA. (Photo by Douglas Stringer/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The difference in height was jarringly apparent on the glass, as Stanford grabbed 34 more rebounds than Florida Gulf Coast, 52-18. The Cardinal even had more offensive rebounds (16) than the Eagles had defensive rebounds (14), which frustrated Smesko the most.

“Once you have defensive breakdowns and you’re in scramble mode, it’s really hard to get your block-outs,” Smesko said, adding they allowed too many points in transition for a team that wasn’t going after offensive rebounds. “We had so many instances where we screwed up something we were guarding and somebody would have to help, somebody would have to recover, and meanwhile somebody’s going to the backboard and getting a second shot opportunity.

“We knew we weren’t going to win boards, but we had to do a better job of holding them to like 10 or 11 offensive rebounds instead of 16.”

While the rebounds were spread rather evenly across the Stanford players, which pleased Stanford senior forward Kaylee Johnson, who grabbed 12 of them herself.

““That’s something we also talked about a lot before the game,” Johnson said. “’We have a height advantage out there, so we better use it. It’s not going to be an excuse for us not getting boards.’ That’s something we tried to take advantage of, so definitely happy with that number.”

But it was junior Alanna Smith led the scoring charge with 28 points alongside of 12 rebounds, a night Smesko called “outstanding.” The 6-4 forward has come on strong for the Cardinal as of late, averaging 18.1 points over her last seven games, which VanDerveer notes has happened before come March.

“She kind of has a way of playing well in the Tournament, thank goodness for that,” VanDerveer said. “She really had a great game tonight — knocking down her three, finishing on the block. Her defense I thought was fantastic. Holding their leading scorer to seven points, really focused. I’m excited for Alanna. Going into the regional with momentum.”

While freshman guard Kiana Williams added 12 points after her 21-point performance Saturday, senior Brittany McPhee contributed 17 points and nine rebounds and sophomore guard DiJonai Carrington dropped 14 points off the bench. Both McPhee and Carrington were out with injuries during portions of Stanford’s 6-6 nonconference play.

Now, only sophomore guard Anna Wilson is out injured, and many around the program feel the Cardinal are really beginning to hit their stride.

“If you look at our record from the beginning, I don’t think anyone expected us to get this far. But I’ve always expected it,” Johnson said. “This is the standard that Stanford sets. Something that we always reminded each other at the beginning of the season is, yeah, our record isn’t good, but it’s a long season. We want to have what we need in March and that’s finally come together for us.”

LOS ANGELES, CA – JANUARY 21: Stanford Cardinal guard Kiana Williams (23) drives to ball up court with UCLA Bruins guard Japreece Dean (24) defending during the game between the Stanford Cardinal and the UCLA Bruins on January 21, 2018, at Pauley Pavilion in Los Angeles, CA. (Photo by David Dennis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

And one person who firmly believes that to be true? The coach who just faced them.

“They look like a team that has a real good chance of getting to the Final Four,” Smesko said. “I think Stanford has a real chance to move on and advance further in this tournament. If they keep shooting the ball the way they shot it tonight, I wouldn’t bet against them.”

To do that, the Cardinal will have to play against the Lexington Regional’s top seed, ACC champion Louisville, just 75 miles down I-64 from their home gym. But even if it’s likely to feel like a true road game, Stanford has a lot of confidence heading to Rupp Arena, where they’ve gone 3-1 in the last two years during the NCAA Tournament.

“Lexington holds a lot of nice memories for us,” Smith said. “It’s just nice to be able to go back to remember what we did there and what we achieved.”

And, if Stanford keeps playing this way, that newfound old Kentucky home may have another memory or two to add to the Cardinal’s collection.

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