Stanford grinds out another Pac-12 title

SEATTLE — It might not yet rise to the level of a “Tara-ism,” but this Stanford team has come up with its own little saying.

“It wasn’t pretty, but it was gritty.”

That short phrase has applied to many a Cardinal game this season, and it might never have applied more than it did Sunday night at KeyArena when, less than four minutes into Pac-12 championship game against Oregon State, Stanford was staring at a 13-point deficit.

“Honestly, I looked up and thought, ‘Dang, again?'” Stanford senior forward Erica McCall said. “But that’s what we’re used to. We know we’ve been in those situations a lot. Being down kind of helps us push through.”

So the Cardinal, who have trailed by at least six points in seven games this season and come back to win, did what they do. They battled back, they buckled down with a remarkable defensive effort and it paid off with a very satisfying 48-43 win over the Beavers to take the Pac-12 tournament title for the 12th time in the 16-year history of the tournament.

Etching Stanford’s name into the trophy is not the automatic exercise it once was.

The Cardinal haven’t won a conference regular-season title in three years; Oregon State has taken three in a row (including last year’s tie with Arizona State). After a run of seven straight titles, Stanford had failed to make it to the championship game in two of the previous three seasons before gutting out Sunday’s victory.

Karlie Samuelson and Erica McCall were freshman when Stanford last reached the Final Four behind Chiney Ogwumike in 2014. They came to The Farm to win championships.

Capturing this one, in their final conference matchup, was undeniably satisfying.

“We wanted a championship this year,” Samuelson said. “So we really wanted this tournament. We knew we could do it, and I’m really happy that we did, because we really want to be champions, and we were that close during the regular season.”

Stanford won because of a stellar defensive showing, holding Oregon State to seven field goals over the final three quarters and just one in the final period. And the Cardinal won because Alanna Smith came off the bench to provide a desperately needed offensive spark.

Smith, from Melbourne, Australia, is VanDerveer’s first international recruit. She has absorbed VanDerveer’s assessments of her play — “I don’t sugar-coat things,” the coach says — and used them to become perhaps the team’s most improved player in the second half of the season.

Smith finished with a game-high 18 points on 6-of-14 shooting from the floor and was 5 of 6 from the free throw line. She was an inside presence when the Cardinal sorely needed one, as McCall struggled to score (2 of 10). Smith also blocked four shots.

“Tara has 1,000 wins, so when she tells me something, I listen,” Smith said. “I think for me, it’s just having an aggressive mindset, and just slowing down and reading the defense. And that’s something my coaches have been telling me and I’ve really been trying to take on board.”

Smith, a sophomore, did not know she was Stanford’s first international recruit until she arrived on campus. She said a lot of players in her age group weren’t interested in trying to play in the States, but she was. She said she sent out some letters to American programs, including Stanford, which was her “dream choice.”

“I just kind of reached out to them and they got back to me and we started talking,” Smith said.

But what Stanford saw in Smith was a big body with a strong ability to finish and an inside-outside game. Smith also hit a key 3-pointer in the first half during Stanford’s slow but steady comeback.

Smith has had some big games this season, including an early-February run in which she scored 60 points over three games, including a career-high 27 points against Cal. She also scored 24 against Oregon earlier in the season. She gives Stanford another scoring option and some added versatility.

“Alanna is really focused. She works extra. She watches video,” VanDerveer said. “She’s really listened and really improved and it’s exciting to see her have such a great game.”

Stanford is expected to be a top-16 seed in the NCAA bracket, which would put the Cardinal in line to host the first two rounds. But the Pac-12 gymnastics championships will be held at Stanford during the first weekend of the tournament, pushing the Cardinal on the road, where they could potentially face the unenviable task of taking on a lower-seeded team on their home court in the second round.

But VanDerveer knows the Cardinal are capable of some big wins away from Maples, this game on Sunday as well as a win at Washington in which they overcame an 18-point deficit to beat Kelsey Plum and the Huskies.

The Cardinal are poised. They are resilient. They can play some great defense. And they don’t have to win pretty to win gritty.

These sayings don’t write themselves, you know.

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