No. 1 Stanford knew early on that its matchup with No. 8 Ole Miss could be tougher than the seeding indicated. But it tried to set the tone at the pre-game press conference on Saturday.
“Some teams look at us and think, Oh, like, the nice girls from Stanford,” said junior guard Agnes Emma-Nnopu. “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 couch, turn on our TV.”
Ole Miss walked into Stanford’s Maples Pavilion, took every single drink out of that metaphorical fridge and settled in for an upset win.
The resulting game was hard-nosed, physical and not always pretty. (Some of those imaginary drinks were certainly spilled.) But Ole Miss scored the first basket of the game and never trailed—despite getting uncomfortably close in the closing minutes—ultimately winning, 54–49. It ended a streak of 14 consecutive trips to the Final Four for Stanford. And it showcased a gritty, impressive defensive effort for Ole Miss.
“We knew that Stanford’s size and length would be a little problematic for us. But we also know that we defend,” Ole Miss coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin said. “I know a lot of people talk about, Oh, Ole Miss is aggressive, but they don’t give enough credit to how disciplined we are defensively, especially when we lock in.”
The Rebels’ pressing defense proved overwhelming for the Cardinal. They closed off passing lanes and consistently forced bad shots. Under pressure, Stanford made uncharacteristic mistakes and struggled to protect the ball. (The Cardinal’s 21 turnovers were well above their season average.) They didn’t shoot from beyond the arc like they usually do—attempting just seven from three compared to their usual 20—yet they had great difficulty in the paint, too, repeatedly missing layups. They had limited good looks from the outside and faced overwhelming pressure from the inside. And they didn’t fare any better on the glass, either, getting outrebounded 44 to 39.
“They were just more physical than us,” Stanford forward Cameron Brink said. “Plain and simple.”
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As the score would suggest, this wasn’t exactly an offensive clinic for either team, with Ole Miss shooting just 29.7% from the field. But despite the lack of offense, the Rebels created more opportunities for themselves and relied enough on the three-ball to stay ahead. Their lead grew as large as 13 in the second half.
Stanford finally established its defense in the fourth quarter and was able to hold Ole Miss scoreless for a period of more than five minutes. That gave the Cardinal time to close the gap and even to tie the game in the final minute and a half. Brink, in particular, gave an impressive effort, leading all scorers with 20 points and adding 13 rebounds. (That was made all the more striking given that she missed Stanford’s game Friday with an illness that kept her at less than full strength even through Sunday.) But with several chances to go ahead at the end, Stanford couldn’t make it happen. Ole Miss shut them down completely: The Cardinal did not score after Brink made a pair of free throws with 1:16 to play and instead turned the ball over three times in the last 30 seconds.
“When I realized that we had to get a stop to win the game,” McPhee-McCuin said, “I had far more peace than if we were having to score on the other end to win the game.”
This matchup stood out from the start as potentially tricky for Stanford. (After all: No one announces they don’t want someone to walk into their house and sit on the couch without believing there might be a chance the other team can do just that.) This is the same Ole Miss team that forced South Carolina to overtime and consistently held its own against a tough schedule in the SEC. The Rebels’ tough defense seemed like it would be a challenge for a Cardinal offense with two freshman guards, and that was precisely what happened Sunday, with Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer citing her backcourt’s lack of experience as one of the factors in the loss.
It was the first time a No. 1 seed had lost in the women’s tournament before the Sweet 16 since 2009.
“We’ve been battle-tested all year,” Ole Miss senior Angel Baker said. “It was finally time to step up to that moment and come out on top.”