Joyful play from Stanford’s Kiana Williams could help Cardinal win women’s hoops title
Shortly after her team had been knocked out of the 2018 Sweet 16, then-freshman Kiana Williams was sitting in her dorm room at Stanford when her phone buzzed with a text from her cousin.
He’d sent a link to an NCAA story announcing future Women’s Final Fours sites: 2019 would be in Tampa, 2020 was slated for New Orleans. And in 2021, Williams’ senior year, the national championship would be played in none other than San Antonio, her hometown.
Talk about a potential poetic ending, Williams thought.
Kiana Williams is the leading scorer for the Stanford Cardinal. averaging 14.4 points per game. (Photo: Carmen Mandato, Getty Images)
But what the 5-foot-8 now-senior point guard could have never anticipated was that she’d actually be playing the entire NCAA Tournament in her hometown, in a bubble, with her family not allowed to hug or high-five her because of a global pandemic.
Stanford, the overall No. 1 seed in the women’s tournament, is loaded with talent and depth. With Missouri State up next in a Sweet 16 matchup on Saturday, the Cardinal is in search of its 13th Final Four under Hall of Fame coach Tara VanDerveer and its first national championship since 1992. To win it all, they’ll need what they’ve come to expect from Williams — scoring (14.4 ppg, 41.9% FG), facilitating (3 apg), leadership (one of three team captains) and joy.
Yes, joy. There’s no mean muggin’ or icy glares from Williams, one of the top guards in the country — and VanDerveer says it’s what makes her so good.
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“Kiana loves being out there, she loves basketball and you can tell,” VanDerveer says. “She rarely gets down on herself, she really stays positive and that’s huge for our team. I can yell at her, and she just lets it roll off her back. She brings a lot of enthusiasm and positive energy to the gym every day.”
She’s also tough, a characteristic she attributes to her father, Michael, and her three older brothers, ages 29-34. They never took it easy on her, which Williams, 21, says she’s grateful for. In the moment though, it wasn’t always fun.
Standing in front of the family’s driveway hoop at 5, Williams told her dad she wanted to play basketball, too. Michael, a former linebacker at Texas Southern, fired a pass at her, which smacked Kiana square in the face.
“Can’t play basketball if you can’t catch a basketball,” he quipped.
Kiana ran inside crying to her mom. She emerged a few minutes later, determined to improve. She hasn’t backed down since.
In the offseason, Williams goes home to train with her oldest brother, Chancy Campbell, a former running back at Abilene Christian. Last summer, with an extended break, they went “back to basics,” Campbell said. He studied Stanford game film to see where Williams shot from most within the Cardinal’s offense, then ran specific shooting and dribbling drills to get her game-type looks.
They’ve been workout buddies since high school, when the knock against Williams was that she couldn’t shoot. Campbell fixed that with daily 6 a.m. shooting sessions at the local Gold’s Gym.
Stanford guard Kiana Williams has spent years working on her game with big brother Chancy Campbell, a former college football player. (Photo: Courtesy Chancy Campbell)
Committed to improving her conditioning, Williams bought a pull-up bar and hung it from her bedroom doorway. At the beginning of quarantine, she could do maybe three pull-ups. Now, she says proudly, she can do 11 without getting tired. She watched every game from last season twice “and some of them three times, watching every small thing I could have done better to help my team.”
Stanford guard Anna Wilson, the Pac-12’s co-defensive player of the year, says Williams being able to do a little of everything is what makes her so good.
“In practice she’ll come down the court and I don’t know what she’s looking for,” Wilson says. “She might go to the basket, dish it, step back to her left side or feed it to the post. Her willingness to get other people involved, that’s a really underrated part of her game that makes her tough to guard.”
Also, Wilson says, Williams is much quicker than you think, allowing her to explode past defenders. VanDerveer agrees. She keeps telling Williams to call her own number; on a team full of future WNBA draft picks, she wants Williams to take over more.
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Stanford’s season has been studded with strange, wonderful moments. Stuck at home this summer instead of on campus, Williams and the two other seniors organized Zoom sessions with underclassmen to build chemistry. They played get-to-know-you games with freshmen, asking newcomers to show three photos and explain why they were meaningful.
Forced out of Palo Alto because of a ban on sports, the Cardinal spent almost 10 weeks on the road in December and January, playing "home" games in Vegas, Oakland and San Jose, living in hotels and out of suitcases. Williams sees parallels between that extended road trip and all the times her brothers didn’t take it easy on her in driveway hoops: It wasn’t necessarily fun in the moment, but it built toughness and character that benefit her now.
It’s been especially helpful the last couple weeks, as Stanford is again cooped up in a hotel. This one comes with home cooking at least: Williams might not be able to hug her family just yet, but they’re doing everything they can to make her and her teammates feel welcome. Who needs Uber Eats when your dad used to run a barbecue joint and happily delivers smoked brisket, ribs and sausage to the hotel?
The longer Stanford stays in Texas, Williams has reminded her teammates, the more delicious food her family will make. Her dad’s enchilada pie is on the menu before the Sweet 16, and she’s hinted that his gumbo could be delivered next.
Some players might collapse under the pressure of playing for a national championship in their hometown, but Williams, who finished school last week, is choosing to focus on the positives. Her family has a history of big moments in the Alamodome, from her high school graduation to Campbell’s state football championship to her two state high school championship games appearances. Adding to the list, she says, just feels right.
Williams hasn’t hugged her parents since Sept. 18, 2020, when she left for school. Because of county travel restrictions, she couldn’t go home for Christmas. In Texas, players must continue to maintain physical distance from anyone not in the bubble.
“My mom gives the best hugs,” Williams says. “Man, I can’t wait to hug her, it’ll be worth the wait.”
And it’ll be even better, she says, if there’s a net hanging around her neck when she does it.
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