A few more made shots and it would have been dubbed the Cameron Brink stomach bug game, featuring a gif of her eating a snack pouch on the bench. Instead, it will go down in NCAA women’s basketball history for other ill reasons.
Stanford became the eighth No. 1 seed, and first since 2009, to fail to make a Sweet 16 and the only women’s program to drop early twice. In 1998, the Cardinal were the first No. 1 seed in men’s or women’s tournament history to lose to a No. 16 seed when they lost to Harvard.
Late on Sunday night, it was No. 8 Ole Miss and its defense that did them in, 54-49, at Stanford as the last game of the day. It was a “Pac-12 after dark” performance for the wrong ages and it highlighted what matters most to make a deep run in March.
Ole Miss had the same offensive shooting woes as Stanford, but stayed locked in and disciplined defensively.
“I think they were just more physical than us, plain and simple,” Brink said, echoing a common refrain of SEC teams’ opponents this postseason.
They were gritty. Stanford wasn’t.
Brink’s 20 points (half on free throws), 13 rebounds, 7 blocks and 2 steals weren’t enough to carry Stanford and she said afterward she still felt sick and winded after dealing with a weeklong stomach bug that kept her out of the first round. As a senior leader next season, she said the lesson she’d instill in the team is that nothing is guaranteed.
“We can’t be soft,” said Brink, who was on the 2021 championship team as a freshman. “We have to always play with a chip on our shoulders, and just be gritty. I feel like we were lacking some of that this year, so [there’s] always room to improve.”
Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer said her star shot-blocker might be “confusing grit with experience.” No matter which it was, Stanford lacked an urgency and hunger on Sunday night. Junior guard Agnes Emma-Nnopu, who made her first start this season, alluded to it as a key to beating Ole Miss the day prior.
“I think some teams look at us and think, ‘Oh, like, the nice girls from Stanford,’ ” she said on Saturday. “So I think we’ve got to go out there with the mentality that we’re not going to let people walk into our home, go into our fridge, take our drinks, sit on our coach, turn on our TV. We got to like, not let them punk us.”
Ole Miss (25-8) made itself comfortable in Stanford’s house from the first tip and never trailed, snapping Stanford’s 21-game winning streak at Maples Pavilion. It ended the Cardinal’s streak of Sweet 16s dating back to 2007, third-longest in history behind UConn and Tennessee. Coincidentally, it was the last time Ole Miss made it that far.
“Just walking in, knowing who we are, we have been battle-tested all year,” said senior guard Angel Baker, who led the team with 13 points and 4 rebounds. “We’ve fallen short, and it was finally our time to step into that moment and come out on top. I feel like we walked in with confidence and we knew who we were from the jump.”
Head coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin said her team wasn’t intimidated by Stanford (29-6) because the players don’t “really know how historic this program is” since they aren’t often watching teams on the West Coast. The Rebels never looked lost in the moment, going up by 13 in the third quarter and holding off a late Stanford comeback by smothering two inbound attempts, making a defensive stand and hitting five free throws in the final 22 seconds. The first two by Madison Scott gave Ole Miss the lead back for good after it was tied 49-49.
“Honestly, when I realized that we had to get a stop to win the game, I had far more peace than having to score on the other end to win the game because that’s who we are,” McPhee-McCuin said. “We have won tons of games by having to get a stop, and our team just felt like we could do it.”
Grittiness is most often used in conjunction with defense. It takes a willingness to work hard, get on the floor, make things happen when the offense isn’t. It’s a common refrain to explain an ugly basketball game that ultimately is effective. Which is exactly what this was.
The Rebels forced Stanford into 21 turnovers, tied for the second-most of their season. All three were losses, also to South Carolina (22 TOs) and Utah (21). They had 17 of their own, though Stanford couldn’t capitalize.
Ole Miss’ pace and movement contributed to a 33% outing for Stanford’s offense, also second-worst this season. Part of that was missed layups and easy shots that normally go. And the Cardinal hit a season-low two 3-pointers, down from their average of nearly seven a game. The 49 total points were second to only 46 in the loss to USC, and a deep dip from the 76.1 they averaged.
“For us to score 7 points in a quarter is unheard of for the team that we have,” Jones, who had 16 points and 8 rebounds, said of the second quarter that ultimately proved most costly.
All of Stanford’s low offensive numbers fall with Ole Miss’ defensive range that has them ranked top-10 defensively. Their showing follows that of Georgia, which took No. 2 seed Iowa to the final possessions with defense in the same Seattle 4 regional.
The difference was the Hawkeyes had enough offense. They had the late defensive stop and avoided mistakes, which is what doomed Georgia’s chances. Iowa knew how much it took to reach the Sweet 16 in a tough matchup after last year’s quick exit. The Hawkeyes had a grit and tenacity — or maybe, an experience — that Stanford didn’t show in the nightcap or maybe have at all.
“In our team meeting, like people said, you know, it’s harder than they thought it was or remembered it,” VanDerveer said. “You go 18-0 [in conference], you win the Pac-12 tournament and you forget how hard that really was.”
Ole Miss was 7-23 overall three years ago. Last year, it reached the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2007. A month ago, it gave No. 1 overall seed South Carolina its closest game of the season in overtime days after losing to LSU by single digits.
“Definitely those games, falling short, that hurt in the moment but ultimately prepared us for this moment,” Scott, the junior forward, said. “We finally closed out a game, and we are just hungry for more.”