This is what a down year looks like at Stanford:
Twenty-two wins against the fifth-toughest schedule in the nation, a 13 RPI, with a runner-up finish in the Pac-12 and home-court advantage for the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament.
Truth is, the Cardinal are never really down, even with their best player injured.
Facing a brutal nonconference schedule without standout guard Brittany McPhee, the Cardinal went 6-6 and stumbled into the Pac-12 season. Now they’re healthy and focused on beating Gonzaga on Saturday in their first-round NCAA Tournament game at Maples Pavilion.
“We didn’t start the season the way we wanted, but it’s just something that you have to remember that it’s a long season and there are ups and downs,” senior forward Kaylee Johnson said.
The biggest downer was a foot injury to McPhee, which cost her most of a nonconference season that was among the toughest in the nation.
Stanford opened the season by losing to Ohio State and UConn by a combined 46 points, then lost again to Ohio State before setbacks against Baylor, Western Illinois and Tennessee.
The payoff would come later.
“It made us stronger, more resilient, more determined (and) people had to get tougher,” coach VanDerveer said of the schedule.
“If we are to move on and you play Baylor, as an example, well we’ve played them. We’ve played Tennessee. We know matchups,” VanDerveer said.
They also know how to win. This will be Stanford’s 32nd NCAA appearance, all but one of them under VanDerveer.
The Cardinal have reached the Sweet 16 on 24 occasions, along with 13 Final Four appearances and two national titles.
Stanford went 14-3 in the Pac-12, finished second behind Oregon. A 20-point loss to the Ducks in the Pac-12 Tournament title game didn’t diminish Stanford’s confidence heading into the NCAAs.
Stanford is one of six Pac-12 teams in the tournament.
Ranked 15th and seeded fourth in the Lexington Regional, this is a typical Stanford team: physical, balanced and adept at taking away the other team’s top scorer.
Sixteen months ago, that was Jill Barta, whose game-high 26 points led GU to a 68-63 upset win, the school’s first over Stanford in eight tries.
Expect Barta to get the attention of Johnson, a 6-foot-3 junior whose forte is rebounding (a team-high 7.5 per game) and defense.
“Down the stretch, Kaylee has been the one that has really been consistent,” VanDervee said. “She’s practicing really hard and doing a lot of the dirty work, but also scoring more for us, obviously rebounding and playing great defense.”
Barta also will be up against 6-4 junior Alanna Smith, a tough defender who also averages 13.1 points.
The focus of the offense is McPhee, a USA Today third-team pick All-American who averaged 17 points a game.
McPhee played AAU ball in Spokane with current GU players Laura Stockton and Chandler Smith.
Stanford freshman guard Kiana Williams averages 10.1 points and shot almost 70 percent from the field during the Pac-12 tournament.
Stanford ranks 24th in the nation in field-goal percentage defense (36.1 percent) and 21st in blocks (5.2 per game).
The Cardinal are among the worst free-throw shooting teams in Division I, ranking 317th out of 349 teams at 63.9 percent.
Subscribe to The Spokesman-Review’s sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.