Cameron Brink and Kiki Iriafen find gratitude in growing together to form formidable 2-post lineup for Stanford

Stanford forward Kiki Iriafen dribbles the ball during a game against Tennessee last season. (Darren Yamashita/USA TODAY Sports)

When Cameron Brink and Kiki Iriafen step on the court for Stanford, the duo feels a series of emotions — nerves, excitement and, when they look at each other, gratitude.

After battling in practice every day, the duo is grateful to be playing with, rather than against, each other.

“I tell Kiki every day, ‘I’m thankful that you’re on my team because I wouldn’t want to guard you for real in a game.’ She’s such a beast,” Brink said with a laugh.

Iriafen feels the same way. But the rest of the country isn’t so fortunate. Every Stanford opponent has to try to guard not one but two elite post players. So far, no one has had much luck, as Brink and Iriafen are posting eye-popping numbers.

Through seven games, both players are averaging a double-double, helping Stanford to a 7-0 record with major wins over then-No. 9 Indiana and then-No. 13 Florida State and an overtime victory over a tricky Duke squad.

Brink, a 6-foot-4 senior, is averaging career-high numbers in every category, with 18.9 points, 12.1 rebounds and 3.9 blocks per game. Iriafen, a 6-foot-3 junior, is doing the same. She’s putting up 19.7 points and 10.3 rebounds per game, vast improvements on her stat line of 6.7 points and 3.8 rebounds last season.

There were questions for Stanford during the offseason, after Haley Jones, Fran Belibi and ​​Ashten Prechtel graduated, and Stanford saw a slew of players transfer — including last season’s No. 1 recruit, Lauren Betts. But Brink had a message for anyone who asked what this new Stanford squad would look like: “Just wait. We are going to be good.”

She had faith in the entire team but knew Iriafen was due for a breakout season — and in turn, the Cardinal would benefit.

“I could not be more proud of the growth she's made,” Brink said. “She was capable of all of this last year, but she's super-confident now, as she should be. And she's just a game-changer.”

Both Brink and Iriafen have ascended to stardom for the Cardinal, albeit on different paths.

Brink came to campus in 2020 as the No. 3 recruit in her class and the top forward in the country. It didn’t take long for her to work into the starting lineup, and by the end of the season, Stanford won a national title. Brink was a massive part of that, averaging 9.9 points and 6.7 rebounds per game while making her mark on the defensive end. Her 2.8 blocks per contest made her a dangerous defender of the paint, something she has only improved on since then.

Brink's numbers, role and overall dominance increased over the next two seasons, and as a senior, she was named a preseason All-American and is already building a case to be Player of the Year.

“She just gets better and better every year,” Iriafen said of Brink. “When I was a freshman, she was super-good. Last year, she was super-good, but this year, I think she’s phenomenal.”

Stanford forward Cameron Brink drives to the basket past Albany forward Helene Haegerstrand during the second half of a game Nov. 26 in Stanford, California. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)

Iriafen was a four-star recruit the following season, ranked the No. 19 prospect in the country by ESPN’s HoopGurlz. COVID-19 made evaluating players more difficult, and only 14 players in the class were given five-star status, whereas the year prior, it was assigned to 53 prospects.

She was clearly a top talent and was named a McDonald’s All-American, but Iriafen took a bit of time to get acclimated to Stanford’s system. As a freshman, she played just 6.5 minutes per game. As a sophomore, she started for most of the season but still saw limited minutes, playing just 12 per contest.

Stanford’s rotation made it hard for Iriafen to make an impact. Coach Tara Vanderveer played 12 players regularly, and Jones often slotted in at the 4-spot after the first round of substitutions, where Iriafen would normally play. In some ways, there was too much talent on the roster, and the Cardinal struggled to find a rotation that worked.

“I feel like with people leaving, it was a blessing, honestly,” Brink said. “I feel like the pieces line up even better now, and people are starting to see that.”

Now, Iriafen is playing true starter minutes at 23.9 per game, third-most on the team behind Hannah Jump and Talana Lepolo. Brink is just behind, at 22.4 minutes per game.

That means the two spend a lot of time on the court together.

Defensively, Iriafen is able to guard any position, and Brink provides all the backup she needs, posting the fourth-best shot-blocking numbers in the country.

On offense, they excel in the high-low game, challenging defenses to find ways to guard both players at once.

“Teams have to pick if they want to focus on her or me,” Iriafen said. “And we are always looking for each other on the court. We have great chemistry.”

The two-big lineup has been a cornerstone of Stanford’s success this season, but it’s new territory for the duo.

As a freshman, Iriafen remembers being slightly unsure of Brink. She didn’t know how to handle her ultra-competitive persona on the court, especially when Iriafen received the brunt of it as her primary defender in practice. But now, the junior says she understands what makes Brink tick.

The two made a conscious effort to get to know each other in the offseason, and it's paying off.

“We just weren’t able to mesh well in the beginning,” Iriafen said. “But I think it was just that we didn’t know each other. And I think it’s hard sometimes when you’re so similar. But we worked on jelling together, and we are super close now.”

Iriafen describes their relationship as sisterly, complete with the ups and downs — and fights — that siblings share. Sometimes they clash in practice, but the two understand that any conflict is because of how similar they are.

“She’s super-locked in and super-competitive like me,” Brink said. “Iron sharpens iron, so we go hard on each other at practice, but it’s made us so much better.”

Their differences are also an advantage. Iriafen describes Brink as the emotional leader of the team, whose work ethic inspires everyone else on the roster. Meanwhile, Iriafen is more “motherly.”

“It’s kind of like a good cop, bad cop dynamic that we have,” Iriafen said with a laugh.

Brink and Iriafen have also become each other's biggest advocates. Iriafen gushes about Brink’s talent and how she has been a role model for everyone in the program. And Iriafen “should be on every award watchlist in the country,” Brink said.

They’ll guide the Cardinal through a challenging Pac-12 slate that features five AP Top 25 teams. And luckily for Brink and Iriafen, they’ll do it as partners rather than adversaries.

“We’ve laughed together, we’ve cried together, but at the end of the day, we really get what it takes to win,” Brink said. “It’s great to have a partner in crime for that.”