San Francisco Chronicle
Stanford embracing new role: underdog
Haley Jones was watching the Southern-Sacred Heart play-in game Wednesday night, in order to get a look at Stanford’s opening NCAA opponent, when something caught her attention.
“A graphic came up that says we have a 7% chance to win the natty,” Jones said, referring to the national championship, as she sat in the Stanford locker room. “I was sitting there at the dinner table with my parents and said, ‘Oh, that’s tough.’ ”
Jones called over to her teammate Fran Belibi, who was lounging on a nearby couch. “Did you see that, Fran?” “I sure did,” Belibi said. The Stanford Cardinal start their tournament Friday, hosting Sacred Heart at Maples Pavilion, in an unusual position. A No. 1 seed and one of the most experienced teams in the country, just two years removed from a national title, the Cardinal find themselves in the unaccustomed role of underdog.
Very few “experts” are picking them to advance to the Final Four in Dallas. And the Stanford players are well aware that they are being overlooked.
“We always consider ourselves to be contenders in every regard, for a national championship or for a Final Four,” Belibi said. “I feel like we have a little bit more of a chip on our shoulder.
“We definitely know we haven’t played our best in the last couple of games. But we also know what we are capable of.”
Just a couple of weeks ago, Stanford would likely have been a nearly unanimous choice to make it to Dallas. Ranked No. 2 most of the season, Stanford was playing like a team that had made it to consecutive Final
Fours and had star power in Jones and Cameron Brink. And, of course, a Hall of Fame coach in Tara VanDerveer.
But some late stumbles — a regular-season loss to Utah and a conference tournament semifinal loss to UCLA — have changed perceptions. Stanford was the last of the No. 1 seeds selected, and there was debate about whether the Cardinal, a top seed in each of the past two years, was even worthy.
“We’ve had a great season,” VanDerveer said. “We have had some really challenging situations. I think the team has weathered the storm, so to speak, but it’s been tough.”
The result is that Stanford enters the tournament with some secret sauce: a little extra motivation.
“I don’t think it’s bad for us to have something to prove,” VanDerveer said. “For me, the challenge is putting the puzzle together. For them to say, ‘We have something to prove,’ I think is great.
“It’s always good to have a little stone in your shoe.”
The team is still anchored by Jones and Brink, as well as seniors Belibi, Hannah Jump and Ashten Prechtel. As VanDerveer likes to point out, those players have only known either the pandemic interruption or Final Fours.
But this is a different team than the one that made it to Minneapolis last year, losing to UConn in the national semifinal. The glue of that team was twins Lacie and Lexie Hull, who shot threes, defended hard and provided critical leadership.
It doesn’t matter who comes and who departs. With every iteration of VanDerveer’s Stanford teams, the expectations are still high. The team has made 35 consecutive NCAA Tournaments. When you’re wearing a Stanford uniform, every loss is magnified.
“We’re a little bit a victim of our own success,” VanDerveer said.
That’s definitely true in Pac-12 play. The surest way to get attention in the conference is to beat Stanford, which has dominated the West Coast for so many years.
Teams have built their rosters to contend with the Cardinal, year in and year out, and in the changing landscape of college sports in general and women’s basketball specifically, there’s more parity.
This season, the Cardinal come into the tournament having to share the regular-season conference title with Utah and having been bounced from the conference tournament early.
And in the rare position of being overlooked.
“We’re kind of the underdog in a sense,” Jones said.
“That’s not where I get my motivation from,” she added. “I get it from myself and the team. We want the same goal every year: to win the natty. It’s tangible and doable and we’ve done it before.”
“We have the experience,” Jump said. “We know exactly what it takes to get there. We are confident as a group. In the back of our minds, it motivates us more to go out there and prove them wrong.
“People aren’t expecting us to make a Final Four run, but we know with this group that’s something we’re definitely capable of.”
The Stanford players take the court with a stone in their sneakers. And that’s not a bad thing.