Top-seeded Stanford falls to Ole Miss, short of Sweet 16

Fifth-year Ole Miss coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin said she could feel something different with her group as it prepared to take on three-time national champion and No. 1 seed Stanford in the second round of the women's NCAA tournament.

After several close losses against top teams this season, including to defending national champion South Carolina, the Rebels were locked in and said they were ready to do what was needed to come through with a win. In fact, McPhee-McCuin had so much faith in her squad that she drafted a tweet before the game recognizing the people who prepared her for this moment.

The eighth-seeded Rebels delivered on that promise and made history in the process, defeating the Cardinal 54-49 on Sunday night at Stanford's Maples Pavilion. Stanford became the first No. 1 seed since 2009 to fail to reach the Sweet 16 in the women's NCAA tournament.

The Cardinal had not been eliminated in the second round since 2007; their 14 consecutive appearances in the Sweet 16 represented the third-best mark of all time, behind UConn (28) and Tennessee (27). Winners of the 2021 national title, they had been to two consecutive Final Fours.

Sunday's victory served as an exclamation point on a remarkable turnaround for the Ole Miss program, as McPhee-McCuin led the Rebels to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2007. It already was the program's first second-round appearance since that campaign.

Just three seasons ago, Ole Miss went winless in SEC play. The Rebels then finished as the runners-up in the 2021 WNIT before returning to the NCAA tournament the following season after a 14-year absence.

"Everyone had a dream coming up," said McPhee-McCuin, who did end up sending that prewritten tweet thanking her loved ones and mentors. "I'm a dreamer, and I try to be a dream merchant for my players. But how cool is it to take down someone that you admire [in Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer]? Like, that was pretty freakin' cool ... so I'll never forget this."

Stanford senior and presumptive 2023 first-round WNBA draft pick Haley Jones offered her thoughts on the upset.

"I think there's just a lot of depth throughout the tournament, and we knew it was going to be like this," Jones said. "It's definitely great growth for the women's game, but it sucks that we have to be on the other side of it."

The Rebels will next face the winner of Monday's second-round matchup between No. 4 seed Texas and 5-seed Louisville. They join fellow SEC teams South Carolina and LSU in the Sweet 16, while Tennessee can punch its ticket on Monday.

Last month, Ole Miss took South Carolina to the brink, ultimately falling in overtime, and played a close game against LSU in a nine-point loss. Those experiences, in turns out, prepared McPhee-McCuin's squad for something even greater.

"Just walking in knowing who we are, we've been battle-tested all year, we've fallen short," Rebels senior Angel Baker said. "It was finally our time to step into that moment and come out on top."

As Ole Miss junior Madison Scott added, "We wanted to be tough and be together for the entire 40 minutes, play defense at a high level, communicate at a high level and do what we came here to do -- get a win."

Stanford did not lead at any point of the game, with Ole Miss jumping ahead by as many as 13 points midway through the third quarter.

The Cardinal's offense, which struggled throughout much of February and in the Pac-12 tournament, hit a new level of anemia, managing just 20 first-half points behind a barrage of missed layups and 12 turnovers. Their final 33% shooting clip from the field was among their lowest of the season, as were their 21 turnovers overall.

"We knew that Stanford's size and length would be a little problematic for us," McPhee-McCuin said. "But we also know that we defend."

There were certainly self-inflicted wounds on Stanford's part (including a 32% hit rate on layups), but it was Ole Miss' trademark defense, aggressive yet disciplined, that made the upset possible. The Rebels contested 43 of the Cardinal's 52 field goal attempts, according to ESPN Stats & Information research, while also besting Stanford on the glass 44-39.

"I think they were just more physical than us, plain and simple," Stanford's Cameron Brink said.

Helping the Rebels was their 5-for-11 shooting from 3 and, despite making just one field goal in the fourth quarter, going 10-for-12 from the free throw line in the final frame. Two costly turnovers from Stanford in the final 16 seconds effectively sealed its defeat.

"When I realized that we had to get a stop to win the game, I had far more peace than having to score on the other end to win the game," McPhee-McCuin said.

Ole Miss was anchored by three double-digit scorers (Baker with 13, Marquesha Davis with 12 and Scott with 11), as well as Rita Igbokwe's eight rebounds.

Brink led Stanford with 20 points, 13 rebounds and seven blocks after missing the first-round game with a stomach bug that had gone around the team. She said postgame she felt sick and winded throughout the game.

Jones ended her Stanford career with 16 points and eight rebounds.

While Brink posited this year's Stanford team often lacked toughness, VanDerveer chalked the result up to more of a lack of experience, particularly among its young backcourt. Stanford's nine other players who saw the floor combined for 13 points.

"People tried, but it was a struggle," VanDerveer said.