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Analysis: Stanford's calm, depth big reason why Cardinal are capable of winning women's NCAA Tournament

Lindsay Schnell, USA TODAY
·4 min read
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Sometime around 7 p.m. central time, the Stanford women’s basketball team remembered how talented, and how deep, it is.

Trailing 38-26 at halftime, Cardinal coach Tara VanDerveer, a Hall of Famer and one of the steadiest, calmest coaches in college hoops, didn’t panic. Her team had played maybe its worst half of basketball of the season, shooting 10-of-36 (28%) from the field and a dismal 1-of-9 from 3. The Cardinal’s senior leader Kiana Williams, a San Antonio native who has dreamed of leading her team to the national championship in her hometown, was 1-of-11.

“I didn’t recognize the people in the jerseys in the first half,” VanDerveer said. “I told them, ‘Don’t worry about winning — compete!’ I did go through some statistics that I think got people’s attention.”

Then, she put in Ashten Prechtel. With freshman Cameron Brink not moving as well defensively as VanDerveer wanted, in came Prechtel. The 6-foot-5 sophomore from Colorado Springs came off the bench to score 16 points in 16 minutes Tuesday night, going 3-of-3 from deep. She missed just one shot all game, a free throw. Prechtel did not play at all the first half.

But once she got in, the Cardinal got going, ripping off a 17-2 run midway through the third quarter to trail by just two going into the fourth quarter. And she hit the go-ahead 3-pointer to open the last period that gave Stanford the lead for good.

“It probably looks like I should have put her in in the first half,” VanDerveer quipped. “Maybe watching the first half she understood what to do better. Obviously you can’t expect someone to go 6-for-6 every game but I liked how she rebounded, she finished inside. She looked very confident.

"Our team was so excited for her. Having depth like that, where everyone is excited for the other players, is really important."

ELITE EIGHT: Stanford turns back Louisville, advances to 14th women's Final Four

BRACKET: Men's and women's NCAA Tournament results and schedule

Ashten Prechtel (11) came off the bench to score 16 points in Stanford's Elite 8 win over Louisville.
Ashten Prechtel (11) came off the bench to score 16 points in Stanford's Elite 8 win over Louisville.

Prechtel epitomizes Stanford this year — the Cardinal doesn’t just have the most talent in the country, but the most depth (they might have the most inches in wingspans, too, but I digress). If her starters aren’t hitting, VanDerveer has tons of other options, including a 6-foot-5 post who can stroke it from beyond the arc. Not many teams can say that.

“What a great substitution that was because she by far changed the entire game,” said Louisville coach Jeff Walz of Prechtel. “Now you’ve got a post that can pick and pop and shoot the 3, and we knew that’s what she does and you’ve got to give the kid credit.

“She won the game for them.”

In four NCAA Tournament games so far, the Cardinal has had four different leading scorers (senior guard Lexi Hull led them Tuesday night with 21 points, nine rebounds and three steals). As VanDerveer said earlier this week, it’s very much a “pick your poison” situation when you play Stanford. You can hope to contain, or even shut down, a couple players. But good luck doing it to the entire roster.

Stanford also has a seasoned coach who tends to be more analytical than fiery. Though Prechtel said VanDerveer “ripped into us a little bit” at halftime, VanDerveer never loses her cool on the floor, instead studying and strategizing how to put her team in the best position to win.

That coolness was also on display postgame: midway through Stanford’s Zoom press conference, the fire alarm went off at the Alamodome and a voice came over the loud speaker instructing everyone to evacuate. Prechtel left quickly only to be replaced by a Zen-looking VanDeerver, who sat down, studied the stat sheet and then calmly took questions. (It was later revealed that a hot dog roller in the concession stand caught fire, prompting the alarm; by VanDeerver’s second answer, the sirens had stopped.) VanDerveer barely acknowledging the chaos, similar to how she acted in the first half when her team couldn't have thrown a basketball in the ocean, was the perfect metaphor for Cardinal basketball.

Stanford’s depth, coupled with VanDeerver’s unwavering confidence, is why the Cardinal is staying in San Antonio this week. It also might be why it brings home its first national championship since 1992.

Follow reporter Lindsay Schnell on Twitter @Lindsay_Schnell.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: In Final Four, Stanford women are capable of winning NCAA Tournament