How Kiki Iriafen carried Stanford to the Sweet 16

NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament - Second Round - Stanford
Cameron Brink, Kiki Iriafen and their Stanford teammates celebrate Iriafen’s sensational second-round performance. | Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Kiki Iriafen’s career night—41 points, 16 rebounds and three blocks—powered No. 2-seed Stanford past No. 7-seed Iowa State and into the Sweet 16.

In Sunday night’s second-round matchup between No. 2-seed Stanford and No. 7-seed Iowa State, all eyes were on Cameron Brink and Audi Crooks. Brink is projected to be one of the top picks in April’s 2024 WNBA Draft, and Crooks, a freshman phenom at Iowa State, was coming off a historic 40-point (18-for-20 from the field) performance.

But when it was all said and done, Sunday night ended up being the Kiki Iriafen Show.

At the national level, Iriafen has somewhat flown under the radar this season. But with a spot in the Sweet 16 on the line, she was sensational. The 6-foot-3 junior finished with a career-high 41 points to go along with 16 rebounds, four assists and three blocks—all while playing tenacious defense on Crooks, who was held to just 10 points on 3-for-21 shooting.

Cameron Brink, a nominee for Naismith Player of the Year, fouled out in regulation and finished with just eight points on the night—her lowest output since January. So, it was Iriafen’s time to shine, or else Stanford would suffer an early tournament exit for the second-consecutive year. The Cardinal ended up winning 87-81 in overtime, largely thanks to Iriafen’s performance in the extra period, when she scored 11 points. Postgame, Iriafen said:

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. 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.

After the game, Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer praised Iriafen, saying, “Kiki, my hat’s off to you [and] how hard you played, you’re an absolute warrior. That was an awesome, awesome performance.”

It wasn’t always dominance for Iriafen, despite her clear superstar potential. As a freshman at Stanford, Iriafen came off the bench and averaged 4.2 points per game. Her sophomore year, she averaged 6.7 points. But when the spotlight was the brightest, in the biggest game of her college career, Iriafen was the best player on the floor.

Iowa State was red hot for much of the night. Cyclones guard Emily Ryan finished with a career-high 36 points, and she and Iriafen exchanged baskets down the stretch. Iriafen missed a good look at the end of regulation to send the game to overtime, but didn’t let that faze her as she ultimately took over in the extra period with 11 points.

Iriafen said she worked hard to improve her jump shot over the summer, sharing:

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. That is something that I just honed in on that and not being very predictable.

After the game, Stanford legend and ESPN analyst Chiney Ogwumike shared that, a few years ago, she was introduced to Iriafen, a four-star recruit and a McDonald’s All American as a high schooler, by her trainer.

Earlier this season, Brink said, “I tell Kiki every day, ‘I’m thankful that you’re on my team because I wouldn’t want to guard you for real in a game.’ She’s such a beast.”

Brink has been one of the best players in the country all year long. She very well might be again soon, when Stanford faces No. 3-seed NC State on Friday night (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN). But regardless of what happens next, the performance that Kiki Iriafen had on Sunday night was one for the ages.

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