Michelle Smith: Grit and toughness enables Stanford to beat Texas and reach program's 15th Final Four
SPOKANE, Wash. - The plotline veered very quickly from designs on revenge to a battle for survival.
And in the end, there was dancing.
Top-seeded Stanford managed to accomplish both on Sunday night at Spokane Arena, defeating No. 2 seed Texas, 59-50, to advance to the 15th Final Four in program history.
The Cardinal (32-3) won its 24th straight game and punched a ticket to Minneapolis to take a shot at defending its national championship. Stanford will face the winner of Monday’s regional final between North Carolina State and Connecticut in the national semifinals on Friday night at the Target Center.
But it took nearly every ounce of grit and toughness to do it.
It was a physical, tense, foul-filled game in which neither team got anything easy. And in the end, it took an 18-for-22 effort from the free-throw line and some huge plays in the final three minutes from hometown heroes Lexie Hull and Lacie Hull, and Haley Jones, the region’s Most Outstanding Player, to nail it down and avenge a 61-56 Texas win at Maples Pavilion early in the season.
“We knew it was going to be super physical and it definitely was,” Lexie Hull said, her neck draped in the nylon net from her hometown arena. “I’m super proud of our team for staying with it, sticking with each other and being gritty. I think it came down to who was the grittier team tonight.”
It was an angst-filled evening as the relentless Longhorns were within 50-48 with 3:35 to go, struggling to score for much of the second half as Stanford switched to a zone defense to slow down Texas’ inside game and cut off their jump shooters in the middle of the floor.
Stanford had to figure out how to win without its core offensive strengths, hitting just three of 17 attempts from beyond the 3-point line and scoring just six points in transition.
“If you let them do what they want to do, they’ll hang 70 or 80 points on you,” said Texas coach Vic Schaefer. “I think you’ve got to give our kids credit because they didn’t let them do what they wanted to do.”
But what did work was the interior defense of Cameron Brink, who was limited to under 22 minutes with foul trouble but blocked six shots, including a pair of blocks in a key late third-quarter stretch. Fran Belibi came off the bench for 24 huge minutes, collecting 11 rebounds and seven points and holding things down in the paint.
Lexie Hull led all scorers with 20 points, including five in the final 2:30. Jones ended with 18 points and a team-leading 12 rebounds. Lacie Hull played 40 minutes against suffocating perimeter defense and pulled down a pair of huge defensive boards late in the game.
Stanford’s defense held Texas to 10 fourth-quarter points on 3 of 13 shooting, but the Cardinal turned the ball over 20 times, leading to 15 Texas points.
“They made a couple more plays than we did,” said Schaefer. “You have to tip your hats to them.”
Texas went toe-to-toe with Stanford, tied at the end of the first quarter and down by three points at the half, and had the game tied at 37-37 with 4:32 to go in the third quarter before Brink broke it with a 3-pointer and Stanford never trailed again. Not that it felt comfortable for even a moment after that.
“You can never be comfortable if you want to achieve what we want to achieve,” Jones said, acknowledging the “taxing” physicality of Texas’ pressure defense. “But mentally, you have to stay sharp.”
When it was over, the Hull sisters were wearing the nets from each end of the floor around their necks, and the Cardinal danced. Literally. Jones taught VanDerveer the “Electric Slide” over the past few days, and the Hall of Fame coach came through on the floor after the game with a line dance for the ages.
Lexie Hull joked that VanDerveer’s leg has never been so high. No muscles pulled, countered VanDerveer.
The team that not only survived the pandemic year last season, but won a title has only tightened its bonds in the quest for another, a journey that now has no more than two games left. And it’s hard to imagine it could be more treacherous than what the Cardinal endured on Sunday night in Spokane.
“I’m absolutely thrilled that we’re going to the Final Four,” VanDerveer said. “I’m thrilled because of the team that I’m coaching.
“We have great leadership, unselfishness and I think however we play, whether it’s Connecticut or NC State, we will be ready…We’ve had this on our radar all year. We’ve never really talked about going to the Final Four. Now we’re really going. It does not get old.”