Kiki Iriafen Saves Stanford From An Early Exit

Guards are having their moment in college basketball. They’re draining threes from the logo, leading their teams to glory as freshmen, promoting their new single, hogging 80 percent of the first team All-American slots. Even before it proved to be the best game of this year’s tournament—and my favorite since the UConn-NC State double-overtime classic in 2022’s Elite Eight—Sunday night’s second-round matchup between two-seed Stanford and seven-seed Iowa State promised something refreshing: a true battle of the bigs.

Iowa State’s Audi Crooks is just about impossible to guard one-on-one, and the Cyclones’ three-point shooters can take advantage of any space they’re given. Against Maryland in the first round, the 6-foot-3 freshman put up 40 points on 18-of-20 shooting, all 20 of those attempts around the rim. But seven minutes into the game against Stanford, Crooks had already missed more shots than she had missed in 40 minutes against the Terps. Her final line read like a complete inversion of that game’s: She’d go on to finish with 3-of-21 shooting. No, there aren’t many players in the country who can guard Audi Crooks, but Stanford has two of them.

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Cameron Brink, the 6-foot-4 Stanford senior who broke through the guard hegemony of the All-American first team this year, hasn’t quite shaken her old tendency to get into foul trouble at the worst times. After one early embarrassment—see Crooks scoring through her at the 1:50 mark above—Brink held her own defensively against the bigger freshman, but she looked out of sorts on offense and seemed to take her frustrations out on the other end. Stanford’s guards have been mostly decorative in the three years since the Cardinal won a championship, and they indeed spent long stretches of the night looking outmatched by their Iowa State counterparts. (Stanford’s guards did eventually redeem themselves with some big shots in overtime.) A career-high 36-point night from Emily Ryan put the Cyclones in solid position to take down the two-seed on their home court.

With Brink in foul trouble—and then officially out of the game with two minutes left—only one person could save Stanford from a second straight second-round upset: Kiki Iriafen. “We pick each other up. When I’m in foul trouble she takes over and vice versa,” the 6-foot-3 junior said after the game. “We just know we have to pick up for the other person.”

It was a modest way to describe the 41-point, 16-rebound, four-block performance that got Stanford back to the Sweet Sixteen. Iriafen loped to the rim, showed off her touch on the glass, knocked down midrange jumpers, swallowed up Crooks’s attempts at the rim, and played pretty much one of the best basketball games I’ve ever seen.

The moderator running the postgame press conference asked head coach Tara VanDerveer if she wanted to make an opening statement. “Yes,” she said. “Kiki Iriafen. Whoa.”

Iriafen averaged 19 points a game this season after averaging fewer than seven last year, when VanDerveer couldn’t always find minutes for her in a crowded frontcourt. The extra playing time explains some of Iriafen’s success, but not all of it. Where she once seemed like one of those intriguing, you-see-some-flashes athletes, she looks more decisive and confident in the post. She’s also put in work to become a versatile offensive player. She spent the summer honing a reliable face-up jumper, one that calls to mind Las Vegas Aces star A’ja Wilson. (Iriafen even wears the single leg sleeve.) “People know me for being a driver, so when people started taking that away and taking charges, I had to kind of buy-in to my jump shot a little bit,” Iriafen said in Sunday’s presser. “I think I love it a little bit too much now.”

But on Stanford, a team with so few offensive creation options, there is no such thing. “How can you have too much Kiki tonight?” VanDerveer said. “She was in that zone.” With a big like this, who needs guards anyway?

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