February 21, 2017

Cheers, tears for seniors and team

After squeaking by Cal by 6 points at the Bears’ home three days earlier, the Stanford women’s basketball team scored the same number of points but delivered a more resounding victory, 72-54, an 18-point margin, at Maples on Feb. 19.

It was a fitting farewell for the team’s three seniors, who were playing their last game at Maples. There are more games to go, but Maples is home.

All 13 players were on hand. Freshman guard Mikaela Brewer was there after missing several games, but she was in street clothes. Freshman guard Anna Wilson was in a boot. The other 11 players saw action.

Seniors in starting lineup

As usual, the starters included the three seniors -– forward Erica “Bird” McCall and guards Karlie Samuelson and Briana Roberson -– plus the two juniors, forward Kaylee Johnson and guard Brittany McPhee.

As the first of more than 4,300 fans arrived, they received Stanford T-shirts and Beat Cal buttons.

Shortly before the game started, head coach Tara VanDerveer presented flowers to Cal’s two seniors.

Except for a 2-point basket to start the first quarter and two ties later, Stanford led the entire way. The score was 20-14 after the first quarter, 37-32 at the half, 54-44 after the third quarter and 72-54 at the final buzzer.

Marta, Alexa and Alanna cheer their teammates from the bench.
Alanna leads the way

As had been the case at Cal, where she scored a career-high 27 points, sophomore forward Alanna Smith led the team with 17 points to go with a team-high eight rebounds plus one assist, two blocks and one steal. As the Australian made one of her signature moves to score at the basket, announcer Betty Ann Hagenau exclaimed, “Alanna Smith from down under!” 

Britt with 16 and Karlie with 11 were the only other Cardinal players in double figures.

During halftime, the football team walked onto the court holding the Axe, a trophy it has had for seven straight years by virtue of beating Cal.

With the game comfortably in hand toward the end of the fourth quarter, the seniors returned to the bench as the crowd stood and cheered.

Families join seniors for post-game salute

After the tossing of victory balls, the seniors were honored. Joined by their families, they walked through an honor guard of their teammates and staff. As each one approached center court, the video board showed highlights of their careers.

Bird, backed by Kaylee, goes for a layup
Bird was accompanied by her parents, brother and grandparents. A psychology major, she will graduate this quarter to be ready for the WNBA draft.

Bri was with her parents, brother and aunt. Majoring in political science, she hopes to continue playing and then go to law school.

Joining Karlie were her parents and older sister, Bonnie, who graduated from Stanford two years ago. Karlie is a human biology major who hopes to earn a master’s degree in exercise physiology.

While the seniors and Tara were at the post-game press conference, associate head coach Amy Tucker brought Alanna to the mike. “She’s been red hot of late,” Amy said.

Freshmen get their turn at the mike

Next Amy summoned the freshmen: Anna, Mikaela, forward Nadia Fingall and guard DiJonai Carrington. Slightly hoarse, Nadia said that the year’s highlight for her has been “being around such a great group. … We really love each other.”

DiJonai quipped, “I’m happy to finally know the plays.”

Anna, who noted that she has been injured a lot, said she likes being around her teammates and learning.

Mikaela, who’s also had her share of injuries, said the come-from-behind win at Washington was this year’s highlight for her. She’s also happy that she scored 100 percent on the mid-term for her favorite class, chemistry.

Tara returned to say, “It’s been a great four years with this group.” The seniors have embraced the team culture as workers. They also provide the team with leadership and maturity while being happy for others’ accomplishments, she said. “It’s a great team to coach.”

Underclassmen praise seniors

In keeping with tradition, underclassmen were selected to honor each senior. Britt said of Bird, “There’s no one else like her on the planet.” A great friend, “she makes everyone happier and … carefree.”

Bird responded, “It’s been a great night for me. Playing at Maples has been a dream come true.” After she ends her basketball career, she wants to return to her hometown of Bakersfield and open its shuttered YMCA. Her father, Greg, who coaches the Cal State Bakersfield women’s team, coached Bird as she was growing up. “She’s so coachable,” he said, thanking the Stanford coaches for helping her.

Bri battles for the ball.
When Kaylee came up to honor Bri, she said, “I’ve been dreading this night,” and called Bri one of her best friends. A hard worker, kind and unselfish, “she makes me want to be a better person,” the teary-eyed Kaylee said. Because they both hope to become lawyers, they’ve talked about their “future law firm, Roberson Johnson.”

After introducing her family, Bri said she hopes to go to law school at Stanford.  The hard work and discipline she has learned in basketball will apply at law school, she said.

Highlights of her four years have been the win over UConn (88-86 in overtime at home on Nov. 7, 2014, to end the Huskies’ long win streak and their last loss since embarking on their current streak of 100-plus) and this year’s win at Washington.

Her father, Kenneth, said that when she was in fifth or sixth grade, she played in an especially rough game in a church league. Afterward, he told her that every part of her body must have been bruised. She replied that only her heart wasn’t bruised.

Tara said that when Bri was recruited, no scholarship was available for her freshman year, but there would be one thereafter. In the meantime, her family would have to pay her tuition, and she couldn’t go to summer school.

However, one week before summer school started, Toni Kokenis took a medical retirement for her senior year, freeing her athletic scholarship for Bri. When Tara called Bri’s mother, Felecia, to let her know, the first thing Felecia said was how sorry she was for Toni and her family.

Karlie shoots for 3 from the corner.
Next up was sophomore center Shannon Coffee, who honored Karlie. Like Kaylee, she said, “I’ve been dreading this day for a while.” She called Karlie a “kind-hearted, sincere person” who became her friend last year.

Karlie thanked the fans and her teammates before handing the mike to Bonnie. “I love watching Karlie play,” Bonnie said. She does all the little things. Noting that the two of them, along with younger sister Katie Lou, now at UConn, often played one-on-one at home, Bonnie said, “Lou and I hate to play against Karlie” because she’s so good defensively.

Tara added, “I told her she has to be a coach. I love her competitiveness.”

Tara again referred to the team culture, which is all about “caring about each other and loving each other.”

Although this was the last home game, there are two more conference games, at Oregon State at 8 p.m. Feb. 24 and at Oregon at 1 p.m. Feb. 26. Both will be shown on Pac-12 Networks.

The Pac-12 tournament is March 2-5 at Seattle’s KeyArena. Given its current conference record of 14-2, it’s unlikely that Stanford will play the first day.  

(Photos by Scott Strazzante, San Francisco Chronicle)

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