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Defending champ Stanford leans on defense in Final Four run

Mar 29, 2022

Haley Jones and Lexie Hull have so far been the offensive stars during Stanford’s run in the NCAA Tournament, helping get the defending national champions back to the Final Four.

What the likes of Pac-12 defensive player of the year Cameron Brink, along with Anna Wilson and Francesca Belibi, have provided defensively has been just as important.

“I love blocking shots, and that’s what I love to do. I love defense,” Brink said.

Whether it’s Wilson harassing guards on the perimeter, or Brink and Belibi swatting shots in the paint, Stanford’s defensive prowess is just as big a reason why the Cardinal are heading to Minneapolis to face UConn on Friday in the national semifinals with the chance at a repeat title.

Need proof of Stanford’s defensive ability? Ask Texas. The 50 points scored by the Longhorns in the Spokane Regional final loss to the Cardinal was a season low and 22 points below their season average.

Texas coach Vic Schaefer was highly complimentary of Brink and what her improvement defensively has meant for the Cardinal.

“Obviously, she is a talented, skilled basketball player, real smart. I think she’s much better and much improved. She’s learning to be physical,” Schaefer said. “I just think when you have that person back there it just kind of changes your team, lets you really do some things.”

Stanford’s offensive skill is without question. The Cardinal are averaging nearly 74 points per game on the season thanks largely to what Jones and Hull have provided at that end of the floor.

But take away a shaky fourth quarter in the regional semifinal win over Maryland, and the Cardinal have been elite defensively. Stanford is allowing 54.5 points per game in the tournament.

Brink has saved some of her best defensive performances for the NCAAs. During last year’s tournament, Brink had 24 blocks in the six games to the title, including six blocks in the national semifinal win over South Carolina.

Brink already has 17 blocks in this year’s tournament and matched her career-high with six blocks in the win over Texas.

Throw in what Belibi can add with her rebounding, athleticism and occasional dunk, and it’s a formidable duo on the interior for Stanford.

Wilson is usually charged with being the defensive stopper on the perimeter. She returned for a sixth season and the chance at repeat titles after fully embracing her role as a defensive pest.

Coach Tara VanDerveer said that during her career she’s put four players in her “lockdown club” at the defensive end: Kate Paye, Susan Borchardt, Rosalyn Gold-Onwude and Wilson.

“Anna locks down people defensively,” teammate Lexie Hull said. “It’s hard to pick a certain game because it’s every game you see her working. I mean, you don’t want her to defend you. I don’t want her defending me in practice. I don’t think anybody does.”

VanDerveer even joked with Wilson’s brother — Denver Broncos QB Russell Wilson — at the regional tournament about his sister’s versatility.

“In football, you got people that just play one thing. I said, ‘Basketball, you’ve got to play both. I know you like to play offense, but could you guard anybody?’” VanDerveer recalled. “I said, ‘If the offense is doing really well and the defense is kind of taking a day off, do you get upset with the defense? Or if the defense is playing really well, you as offense are not with it, do they get upset with you?’ We kind of laughed about that.”

The Cardinal can also be versatile on defense and it showed during the regional final win. Texas guard Rori Harmon was able to elevate and get shots off over Wilson during the first half. Stanford adjusted and used the taller Lacie Hull on Harmon in the second half and created more offensive problems for the Longhorns.

That kind of defensive versatility will be needed against UConn and its perimeter trio of Paige Bueckers, Christyn Williams and Azzi Fudd.

“I think we play similar styles, and we know that the team that does their thing better will win,” VanDerveer said. “So we know that we have to play very well. You have to do the usual stuff. You have to take care of the basketball, take good shots, rebound (and) play great defense.”