The coolest play of the college basketball season belonged to Stanford junior Haley Jones. In February, on the road, the reigning national champion Cardinal found their perfect conference play record on the line, trailing the Oregon Ducks early in the fourth quarter. The team was completely cold, too, enough that the game seemed out of reach at this point; the numbers for Stanford would end up around 35 percent shooting and just 19 percent from three.
But halfway through the fourth quarter, Jones took over. I watched, awestruck that evening, as she narrowed a 58-49 Oregon lead to 60-58 Oregon lead in under three minutes, pretty much by herself. She made three of her team’s four baskets in that span and assisted on the fourth. On one of those, she blocked Nyara Sabally’s jumper, came up with the defensive rebound, got out in transition, and scored on the other end. She was doing what Haley Jones does, which is to make something out of nothing, to keep her cool in even the most dire moments. When the game was tied, with 40 seconds left, she punctuated the Stanford run with that aforementioned coolest play of the year: a hilarious and-one layup she made from the ground. Of course, Stanford won.
A similar situation unfolded Sunday night, when one-seeded Stanford beat the stout Texas Longhorns defense, 59-50, to advance to the Final Four. Texas had kept Stanford without a field goal for what felt like forever at the end of the first quarter, until Jones ended the four-minute drought with a buzzer-beating iso jumper that tied up the game heading into the second. In her second full season at Stanford—her freshman year was cut short by an ACL injury—Jones has only looked better than she did last year, when she was named the most outstanding player of the NCAA tournament. She’s assumed more responsibility as a ballhandler, and always delights with her finishing ability or crisp, perfectly-timed passes to cutting teammates in the smooth Stanford offense.
She’s a versatile, 6-foot-1 weapon on a team full of them. The Stanford starters score from anywhere, defend well, pass with purpose, and for the most part, they do that with a key physical advantage on their side: This team is tall as hell! I have no clue what position anyone plays. In the starting lineup, there’s the relatively “short” guard Anna Wilson, at 5-foot-9, and then no one else under 6-foot. Scrappy 6-foot-1 twins Lexie and Lacie Hull can shoot, and they’ll always earn their minutes with pesky defense on bad shooting nights. (Lexie finished with 20 points against Texas; Lacie finished with zero, but came up with two blocks and five defensive rebounds.) “You look at their size from two through five, that length gave us fits,” said Maryland head coach Brenda Frese on Friday, after Maryland lost to Stanford in the Sweet Sixteen round.
The most cartoonish display of Stanford’s length came in the third quarter against Texas, courtesy of the 6-foot-4 sophomore Cameron Brink. Brink finished the game with six blocks, and while the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year’s intensity sometimes gets her into early foul trouble, her third quarter was among the most dominant defensive performances I can remember. “I just think when you have that person back there it just kind of changes your team, lets you really do some things,” said Texas head coach Vic Schaefer after the loss. Texas actually did well to force turnovers, which have been a serious issue for a Stanford team without a “true” point guard this year. But Rori Harmon, Texas’s terrific freshman point guard and a fierce defender herself, explained the loss by pointing out that every shot she took was contested. “I am 5’6.” They are probably 6-foot and above.” That was, indeed, the story.
Oh, and off the bench for this team comes dunking 6-foot-1 Fran Belibi and 6-foot-5 Ashten Prechtel. Ha ha ha! One postgame comment from Texas big Lauren Ebo could almost be taken sarcastically: “Credit to them for their natural gift of their size.” If the Stanford players do not deserve much credit for the fact of being tall, they do deserve credit for how they’ve melded size and skill, made the most of their gifts on the way to a second straight national championship.