Stanford’s freshmen make an impact in first NCAA Tournament action

STANFORD — Stanford’s experience has been considered a massive advantage whenever the Cardinal takes the floor.

But even with several key contributors who have played in back-to-back Final Fours and won the national championship in 2021, the Cardinal will need their freshmen to make an impact, too.

And that’ll be especially important if All-American Cameron Brink misses No. 1 seed Stanford’s second round game against No. 8 seed Ole Miss at 6:30 p.m. on Sunday with a non-COVID related illness, too.

In their first taste of NCAA Tournament action, each of Stanford’s three freshmen — center Lauren Betts and guards Talana Lepolo and Indya Nivar — had a solid game in a first round rout of No. 16 seed Sacred Heart and got a chance to enjoy their first taste of March Madness.

“It’s just really exciting,” Betts said. “This is something that Indya and I have grown up watching for a very long time, so it’s just an honor to be here and play on this team and just have this experience with the amazing people I get to be with every day.”

Both Nivar and Betts said their Big Dance debut was just like any other, though Nivar added, “But just with a little bit more excitement behind it knowing that this game, we have to do what we have to do to get to the next.”

Nivar scored double-digit points for just the second time all season, making 4-of-6 shots (one 3-pointer) and both free throws to tally 11 points in 20 minutes. Lepolo, a Carondelet alum Lepolo had a game-high seven assists and three steals while adding three points in 23 minutes.

Perhaps most encouraging for the Cardinal was Betts’ night, as the 6-foot-7 center filled in for Brink had 10 points and seven rebounds in 17 minutes of action. She gave Brink credit for helping her improve to this point in practice.

“I think Cameron and I, KiKi and I, go at it every day and definitely put me in this position,” Betts said. “Today, if someone can’t make it, I’m ready to go, and I know what I have [to contribute].”

Brink posted on Instagram that it was “just a stomach bug” right as the game started on Friday, but included a photo of her at the hospital with an IV in. She’s considered day-to-day.

But with as deep of a team as Stanford has, coach Tara VanDerveer often has a hard time taking her leaders, like seniors Haley Jones and Hannah Jump and Brink, off the floor.

“It is very hard to get minutes for 15 people. It’s really impossible,” VanDerveer said. “I feel sometimes like, when I watch the Warriors play, you know, sometimes someone might play a lot in this game, not that much in the next game. That’s really hard on a young person. But we’re led by Cam and Haley and Hannah Jump, and I think Talana is doing really well.”

Jones and Jump have played 35 minutes or more 15 times each this season and Lepolo has also crossed the 35-minute mark four times, even as a freshman.

So to have a night like Friday, where Jones only played 25 minutes, Jump and Lepolo each played 24 minutes and the players who filled in behind them and for Brink performed well, can be especially valuable at this time of year.

“Indya had a really great game. Lauren Betts came in and filled in beautifully. Fran [Belibi] did really well. There wasn’t anyone that did poorly,” VanDerveer said. “You know, we needed this for our team to kind of bust out a little bit, remind ourselves this is what we can do.”

But make no mistake: the Cardinal would prefer to have their two-time All-American post player back and healthy for Sunday’s game.

“It is really different not having Cam out there,” VanDerveer said. “But I thought different people stepped up very well for us.”

Rebels come in with confidence, similar close call to Stanford

Sunday’s opponent looked especially strong in their blowout win over Gonzaga, actually beating the Bulldogs by a wider margin than Stanford did earlier this year (84-63 on Dec. 4, 2023, although Gonzaga only had seven players that night).

The Rebels did that in part through their domination on the glass, grabbing 24 offensive rebounds en route to scoring 21 second chance points. For coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin, the Rebels reaching the 50-rebound mark for the fourth time this season can be credited to their tough conference slate.

“It’s playing in the Southeastern Conference. Every night, we are playing against elite level talent. We’re playing against elite athletes,. And we have to fight,” McPhee-McCuin said. “We did not think that that would be impossible for us to do tonight or any time in the NCAA Tournament – unless we face South Carolina again; they are monstrous.”

But there’s a funny tidbit about those Gamecocks that both Ole Miss and Stanford share: they are the only two teams in the country to take South Carolina to overtime.

Stanford did so back on Nov. 20, when the reigning national champions came back from down 10 points entering the fourth quarter to win 76-71 at Maples Pavilion.

Ole Miss were also home on Feb. 19 when they took the undefeated Gamecocks to overtime and lost 64-57. The Rebels faced them again in the SEC tournament semifinals and lost 81-50.

In those two games, South Carolina’s size led the Rebels to getting out-rebounded by double digits (by 13 in each game). They’ve only been outrebounded by double digits one time all season.

Could Stanford’s similar size inside to South Carolina present a similar challenge to the Rebels? McPhee-McCuin isn’t sure, if only because of the Gamecocks’ size throughout their entire lineup.

“South Carolina, their front court is 6-6, 6-5, 6-4, 6-3. Stanford’s big, but I don’t remember their 2-guard being 6-3,” McPhee-McCuin said. “I think that they are going to be really good on the glass as well, but even versus South Carolina, we competed. They didn’t just annihilate us on the glass. I guess that’s the point I’m making. That’s just who we are.

“So no matter what, we feel like we can rebound with the best of them, and we’ve shown that because at the end of the day, South Carolina is the No. 1 team in the country until someone beats them, and we’ve been able to rebound with them. So if anything, it gives us confidence.”

As Reported by Marin Independent Journal