Advertisement

Kiki Iriafen spent tireless hours bettering her game and it showed leading Stanford to Sweet Sixteen

STANFORD, Calif. (AP) — Nunu Agara jumped into the open arms of teammate Kiki Iriafen as the celebration began and everyone could finally exhale.

The arena was rocking and Stanford had just survived on its home court to advance to the Portland Regional.

How fitting Iriafen ended the night carrying Agara after the do-it-all Stanford star carried the Cardinal all game to reach the Sweet Sixteen again following last year's heartbreaking loss at home in Maples Pavilion.

Iriafen's sensational stat line: a career-high 41 points shooting 16 for 30, 16 rebounds, four assists, three blocked shots, a steal and 9 of 9 made free throws while playing nearly 41 minutes.

She left her coach in absolute awe.

“Kiki, my hat’s off to you how hard you played, you’re an absolute warrior,” coach Tara VanDerveer told the 6-foot-3 junior forward while praising her defense on standout Iowa State freshman Audi Crooks. “That was an awesome, awesome performance.”

No. 2 Stanford (30-5) will take on third-seeded NC State (29-6) on Friday in Portland, Oregon, after holding on for a riveting 87-81 overtime victory over Iowa State.

Iriafen joined former Stanford star Jayne Appel as the only Division I players to record 41 points and 16 rebounds in an NCAA Tournament game over the last 25 years. Appel had 46 points and 16 boards agaisnt the Cyclones on March 30, 2009.

Iriafen scored 11 of her points in the extra period.

“I think if you want it that bad, nothing will faze you. I wanted it really badly so I didn’t let any fatigue get into my head,” Iriafen said. "It’s all very mental. I was like, just five more minutes, if I can give myself five more minutes and help my teammates out. It was probably just adrenaline taking over."

There have been times when VanDerveer challenged Iriafen to be more patient and let the game come to her. On Sunday night, not much needed saying. Iriafen beat the Cyclones off the dribble for layups and she pulled up from the paint for jump shots, routinely answering a possible momentum swing by Iowa State.

“Every time we tried to do something she countered it with a strong move or something different,” said Cyclones guard Emily Ryan, who had a brilliant night herself with 36 points.

After the game, former Stanford star Chiney Ogwumike shared her own special story about Iriafen on social media.

“I’ll never forget after a workout a few years ago, my trainer asked me to stay and meet this high schooler who he believed was next up at Stanford,” Ogwumike wrote. “She ended our workout with a dunk. It was Kiki Iriafen. Tonight she had 41 points and 16 rebs.”

The Pac-12 Most Improved Player from Los Angeles who earned Associated Press All-America honorable mention recognition, Iriafen spent last offseason transforming herself to make her game less one-dimensional.

Iriafen turned herself into a threat at any spot on the floor, tirelessly developing her mid-range jumper — and those shots found the net all night long.

"I think it’s been the whole summer honestly. 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. I think I love it a little bit too much now," she said, grinning. “That is something that I just honed in on that and not being very predictable.”

There are plenty of games when Iriafen takes a back seat to Cameron Brink, and neither one minds. On Sunday, Brink — the nation's leader in blocked shots — became the one cheering and encouraging Iriafen from the bench because of foul trouble.

Iriafen crossed her fingers to show how close she and Brink are supporting the other.

“So we pick each other up. When I’m in foul trouble she takes over and vice versa. I don’t think there is any pressure for either of us,” Iriafen said. "We just know we have to pick up for the other person."

Stanford's motto this season has been “best year ever" — and nobody wants this run to end any time soon.

In fact, Iriafen felt extra motivation to deliver for seniors Brink and Hannah Jump after the shocking early exit last March at the hands of Mississippi.

“We didn’t want that to happen two years in a row. Also for our seniors, for Cameron, Hannah, we didn’t want this to be our last game,” Iriafen said. "We wanted to get to Portland. This is not the end of our season. We wanted to make it to Cleveland. So just giving it my all to make sure we can get to Cleveland was something that was in my mind."

___

AP March Madness bracket: https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-womens-bracket/ and coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness