Oregon State’s Aleah Goodman defends Stanford’s Lexie Hull during a Pac-12 women’s basketball tournament semifinal game on March 5 at Michelob Ultra Arena in Las Vegas. (Bryan Steffy/Pac-12 Pool Photo)

Oregon State’s Aleah Goodman defends Stanford’s Lexie Hull during a Pac-12 women’s basketball tournament semifinal game on March 5 at Michelob Ultra Arena in Las Vegas. (Bryan Steffy/Pac-12 Pool Photo)

Stanford women begin pursuit of elusive third NCAA title

The most important number for the Stanford women’s basketball team is three.

As in national championship No. 3.

Anything else will be a disappointment.

The Cardinal have been a constant presence among the sport’s elite programs and rank among history’s best in several NCAA Tournament categories: appearances (33, second), victories (89, third), winning percentage (.742, fourth) and games (120, third).

When it comes to NCAA titles, however, Stanford has just two — coming in 1990 and 1992. Connecticut is the premier program in the country with 11 championships, while Tennessee has eight (none since 2008) and new power Baylor has three, including the most recent in 2019. Meanwhile, Stanford’s pair of titles is in a four-way tie for fourth, with two of those teams not having won it all since the 1980s.

But this season’s Cardinal seem to have something special. As Stanford (25-2) opens NCAA Tournament play today at 7 p.m. (ESPN) with a first-round game against tournament newcomer Utah Valley (13-6) at the Alamodome in San Antonio, it does so as the second-ranked team in the country and the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed.

Yes, UConn (24-1) is the top-ranked team in the country, but the NCAA selection committee put the Cardinal just above the Huskies based on what they endured this season.

Stanford spent a good chunk of December and most of January not being able to practice or play on campus or anywhere else in Santa Clara County after the county banned contact sports as part of its health and safety protocols during the COVID-19 pandemic. Three scheduled home games were played in Santa Cruz (a fourth was canceled), which meant the Cardinal did not play at Maples Pavilion following their season opener Nov. 25 until Feb. 5, when Pac-12 Conference play was in its final weeks.

Credit legendary coach Tara VanDerveer for keeping the team together. Coming off a pandemic-altered offseason that also saw two players transfer (DiJonai Carrington to Baylor and Estella Moschkau to Wisconsin) and an assistant coach become a head coach (Lindy La Rocque at UNLV), VanDerveer still had plenty of talent on the roster. Sophomore guard Haley Jones, junior guard Lexie Hull and senior guard Kiana Williams were named to the preseason All-Pac-12 team and the Cardinal were ranked No. 2.

The only real glitch in Stanford’s season happened in back-to-back games in mid-January, when the Cardinal lost on the road to Colorado 77-72 in overtime and in Santa Cruz to UCLA 70-66.

But by that time, VanDerveer had already moved into the No. 1 spot for career coaching wins and Stanford’s offensive depth and defensive prowess were firmly established. Williams is the top scorer at 14.3 points per game, while Jones checks in at 13.0 and Hull 11.5 points per game. Jones also averages a team-best 7.7 rebounds per game.

Freshman Cameron Brink adds 10.2 points per game and anchors the defense with senior guard Anna Wilson. Brink, a 6-foot-4 forward, was named to the Pac-12’s All-Freshman and All-Defensive teams after grabbing 6.8 rebounds per game and blocking 64 shots, which ranks 13th nationally. Wilson was named the Pac-12’s co-Defensive Player of the Year, matching Hull for the team lead with 42 steals.

Utah Valley, seeded 16th in the Alamo Region after its first NCAA Tournament bid out of the Western Athletic Conference, is unlikely to play spoiler. Williams, in probably her final games in a Stanford uniform, stepped up her play and was named Most Outstanding Player of the Pac-12 Tournament. Now, she returns to her hometown of San Antonio hoping to make a little more history.

With a strong sophomore group, the 2020 and 2021 recruiting classes each ranked sixth in the country and already landing a commitment from the top player in the 2022 class (Lauren Betts), the Cardinal will continue to be one of the top programs in the country.

But winning national championship No. 3 will restore some luster to a program starving for a title.

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