Tara VanDerveer one win from Coach K’s all-time record as Stanford holds off Utah

Tara VanDerveer one win from Coach K’s all-time record as Stanford holds off Utah

To start the second quarter, Tara VanDerveer didn’t play it safe. She inserted Cameron Brink back into the game, despite the star center having already picked up two fouls.

The decision, like so many in VanDerveer’s illustrious 38-year career at Stanford, panned out in the Cardinal’s 66-64 win at Utah on Friday night and moved her to the brink of tying Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski as the winningest coach in college basketball history.

With Brink, a defensive difference-maker, the Cardinal went on an 8-3 run en route to a 23-14 quarter. Brink didn’t pick up another foul all game, and Kiki Iriafen carried Stanford’s offense to gain separation.

Iriafen posted a game-high 25 points and added 16 rebounds, leading the No. 8 Cardinal (15-1, 4-0 Pac-12) past No. 19 Utah in a tense conference battle. Stanford never trailed in the second half but never owned a comfortable lead, either.

“It was a battle,” Iriafen told reporters postgame. “We battled for 40 minutes.”

The two-point triumph gave VanDerveer her 1,201st career victory, one shy of Krzyzewski’s record of 1,202. VanDerveer can match Coach K with a Stanford win on Saturday at No. 5 Colorado.

When Stanford and Utah matched up last season, the Utes won in the Jon M. Huntsman Center for a share of the Pac-12 title. Weeks later, Stanford got bounced in the second round for its earliest tournament exit since 2007.

This year’s Utah squad isn’t quite as formidable, especially with Gianna Kneepkens injured, but was still ranked No. 19 in the nation before Friday. Star center Alissa Pili, a projected first-rounder in the WNBA Draft, presented Stanford with a particular challenge as a 50% 3-point shooter opposite Brink.

Utah tried to use Pili’s — and others — outside shooting threat to draw Brink away from the rim, but the latter was quick enough to both shuffle her feet on the perimeter and recover to challenge shots inside. Stanford limited Pili to 16 points on 5-for-18 shooting.

“We tried to mix it up,” VanDerveer told reporters postgame. “We have two great bigs, with Cam and Kiki, and we just tried to keep them in the game, keep one of them on her, double her sometimes. Not do anything consistently, so she didn’t know what was coming. Sometimes she was 1-on-1, sometimes she was doubled, sometimes she was triple teamed.”

Brink only had two points at halftime, but the Cardinal was still — as usual — at its best with her on the court. She played in short bursts because of her foul trouble and perhaps also to counteract the Salt Lake City altitude, but still notched 27 minutes — more than her season average. Hannah Jump, Iriafen and a strong spurt from Jzaniya Harriel helped Stanford earn a seven-point lead at the half.

The Cardinal stretched its lead out to a game-high 10 early in the third quarter, but Utah responded instantly with an 8-0 run. VanDerveer called timeout after Pili threw a beautiful no-look wraparound pass for an assist under the hoop.

Brink never found her offensive rhythm, missing two point-blank layups, but Jump and Iriafen kept Utah at bay. Stanford never trailed in the second half.

When Utah inched within one deep into the fourth quarter, Brink drilled a 3 from the left wing after Iriafen kept the possession alive.

That wasn’t enough for the Cardinal to coast, though. Stanford didn’t make a field goal for the game’s final 3:22, and Pili brought the Utes back within one.

A jump ball gave Utah the ball with 13.9 seconds left and a chance to win. Pili tried to body Iriafen to the cup, but Stanford’s player of the game stood her ground and won possession back by tying the center up, effectively cementing the win.

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Stanford benefitted from a no-call shortly before that would have awarded Utah the ball on a shot-clock violation, and Iriafen got away with a lot of contact. Fans in Salt Lake City booed the officials after Pili’s final heave fell short. In VanDerveer’s four-decade career, she’s had more calls than anyone go either her way or against her.

“I think those were just television rating calls, you know, let’s just keep people watching the game,” VanDerveer said. “They were mysteries.”

Over so many years, the calls seem to balance out. And over so many years, VanDerveer’s teams have been like they were in Salt Lake City: winners.