STANFORD, Calif. (AP) — Francesca Belibi and Lacie Hull found themselves talking the other day as Stanford prepared for the NCAA Tournament about just how special it is to be back hosting the first and second rounds on campus again.
It’s been a while. Three years, in fact, and Belibi wasn’t even around yet.
These two and all their teammates are cherishing this chance to play in front of the loyal home fans who had so few opportunities to cheer the reigning national champions during last year’s remarkable March run.
The top-seeded Cardinal (29-3) will host another game on their home floor in Maples Pavilion when they face No. 8 Kansas (21-9) in the second round Sunday night. Belibi, a 6-foot-1 junior, became the third woman to dunk in an NCAA game when she did it in a 78-37 rout of Montana State to open the team’s title defense Friday night.
She relished in the tremendous response from the raucous crowd and everywhere else.
“Fran has never experienced this,” senior guard Hull said of playing at home in the tournament. “It’s definitely feeling more like normal. I don’t really know what normal is anymore because that was only one of three (years), but it definitely feels good to be back at Maples for the first two rounds, and it’s exciting to have all of our fans to be able to come to those games, too.”
Stanford realizes the daunting challenge ahead to try for a repeat title after capturing the program’s first championship since 1992 last spring.
A year ago, Hall of Fame coach Tara VanDerveer’s team traveled non-stop just to complete a season like no other.
The Cardinal spent nearly 10 weeks away from campus last season in all because of Santa Clara County restrictions on sporting events, covering thousands of miles to play when others couldn’t field teams or stay healthy.
“I think one of the most impressive accomplishments in sports. It was unbelievable,” said Kansas coach Brandon Schneider, the Big 12 Coach of the Year whose team advanced by beating ninth-seeded Georgia Tech on Friday.
“She’s obviously a coach that we all look up to and admire and try to emulate maybe in building our programs the right way with the sustainability that Stanford has had for so many years.”
Yet Stanford’s players aren’t counting on any of last year’s triumphs mattering too much now.
Still, the start of the NCAA Tournament sure feels sweet with a nice cheering section this time.
“There is some sort of confidence from having won because you know what it takes to get there,” Hull said. “This is a completely different season, a different team, so I think that we have that in the back of our minds but we can’t really rely on anything from last season, so we’re focused on each game as is.”
In late November 2020, Santa Clara County established COVID-19 health and safety protocols prohibiting practices and competitions. Those restrictions remained in effect for nine weeks — so the Cardinal hit the road.
All of those challenges helped bring the Cardinal together and the women became even more close-knit. It taught this team resiliency VanDerveer knows ended up being a positive during the Final Four.
Now, Belibi and Cameron Brink will have a big challenge in the middle from Jayhawks 6-foot-6 junior center Taiyanna Jackson. She did it all on both ends in the opener, finishing with 14 points and seven rebounds while also extending her single-season school record to 92 blocks by swatting a pair of shots.
“When you have that dependability in the paint, it’s kind of like a relief, like ‘Hey, I know she’s going to do her job,’” Kansas guard Holly Kersgieter said. “And there’s obviously plays where she can go one-on-one and a lot of others aren’t involved … so it’s fun watching her, too. And just to have that presence in the paint, it’s great to have her behind us.”
Kansas has certainly been tested in recent weeks, so this won’t be anything new: facing Baylor, Texas then Oklahoma twice leading into the tournament.
“We had the toughest schedule in the country the last four games,” Schneider said.
VanDerveer knows just how tough it is at this stage — she cut down the tournament nets in 1990 and ’92 then not again until last year. Her team did it by holding off Pac-12 rival Arizona in the championship game by a single point, 54-53. That’s after the Cardinal beat South Carolina 66-65 in the national semifinals last spring.
“It’s just really exciting to play in front of Stanford fans, having another opportunity to do that,” sixth-year senior guard Anna Wilson said. “Hosting is a really great thing for our team and being able to have familiar faces in the stands and everything before moving on to any other stage of the tournament.”
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