Stanford star Kiki Iriafen leads Cardinal against NC State


There are no guarantees Kiki Iriafen will drain a 3-point shot or punctuate a Stanford fastbreak with a slam dunk in the NCAA Tournament.

Everything in between is on the table.

Okikiola “Kiki” Iriafen, 21, is the talk of women’s college basketball after scoring 41 points with 16 rebounds in a second-round overtime win over Iowa State over the weekend. Her No. 2 seeded Cardinal (30-5) play North Carolina State (29-6) Friday night in Portland in the Sweet 16.

In the aftermath, “wow” was the first word out of the mouth of Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer, who has had no shortage of star players in becoming the winningest coach in college basketball history. Coaches Larry Vickers of Norfolk State and Bill Fennelly of Iowa State, the Cardinal’s first two victims, conceded that they weren’t prepared for Iriafen’s level of dominance.

“As somebody who follows everything and watches as much college basketball as I possibly can, I had no clue that she was that good,” Vickers said.

Said Fennelly: “She’s one of those kids that in person was much better than on video.”

All of which comes as no surprise to Millie Junio, a coach, mentor and friend to Iriafen and her family since their days together at Harvard-Westlake High in Studio City.

“The great thing is, the world is seeing what we all knew Kiki was capable of since she was 14,” Junio said in a phone interview this week.

Considering Iriafien was recognized as the Pac-12’s Most Improved Player as a junior in the final year of the conference as we know it, perhaps her play shouldn’t have been such a big surprise, even if it’s only beginning to leak out nationally. Averaging 19.2 points and 11.1 rebounds per game, Iriafen has had the most impressive breakout season in the country.

Which makes it hard to reconcile a sophomore season in which the 6-foot-3 post scored in double figures in seven of her first eight games, then just twice more before the season’s end. In her last seven games, Iriafen scored all of 16 points.

Enter Junio, who has worked on Iriafen’s mindset, skillset and conditioning since they met at Harvard-Westlake.

Nobody would have blinked if Iriafen, a five-star recruit, had looked toward the transfer portal when she didn’t immediately take on a leading role. Iriafen played in 33 games as a freshman, with no starts. As a sophomore, she saw more playing time but still split minutes with Fran Belibi and Ashten Prechtel, who graduated last spring. Lauren Betts, a prize Stanford recruit, transferred to UCLA last offseason.

Iriafen stayed put to team with senior post Cameron Brink, with the two working in tandem to not only improve their own games but dominate the opposition inside.

Junio was a constant source of information and encouragement heading into a junior year where Iriafen stepped up and never considered stepping off.

She leaned heavily on Junio, who Iriafen singled out in a recent press conference as someone who has gone from coach to mentor to friend.

“She’s like an aunt to me now. I hung out with her the whole summer, and she was pouring into me, giving me affirmations that I could play at this level,” Iriafen said. “There were so many things that I can do, and I was limiting myself. Once I started believing in myself, once I had that mindset shift, I think that’s when things started taking off.”

Stanford forward Kiki Iriafen poses for a photo with mentor Millie Junio. (Photo: Courtesy of Millie Junio)
Stanford forward Kiki Iriafen poses for a photo with mentor Millie Junio. (Photo: Courtesy of Millie Junio) 

Born to Nigerian parents, Iriafen, her younger brother Shuby and sister Okinyade were brought up with academics being paramount and athletics as an important but secondary diversion. Shuby is a soccer player in the Harvard-Westlake class of 2024, and Okinyade a freshman on the school’s Division II state championship basketball team.

As good as she was, Iriafen tended to obsess over mistakes rather than play to her obvious gifts.

“I told her, in life, and just in general, you learn from the mistakes, but you have to move on from them,” Junio said. “The more you focus on the last shot you missed, you can’t look forward and do the good things. Learn from it, correct it and move on. She’s definitely much better this year in being confident in herself. She’s one of the hardest-working individuals I’ve ever met.”

Following a freshman season in which she played sparingly, Iriafen spent the 2022 offseason working on her dribble drive. Going into her junior year, Iriafen’s goal was to develop a mid-range game. Mission accomplished. She buried a number of jumpers from 15 feet and in against Iowa State.

“People know me for being a driver, so when they started taking that away and taking charges, I had to buy into my jump shot,” Ireafin said. “I think I love it a little bit too much now. That is something I honed in on so I wouldn’t be so predictable.”

With Brink, a senior All-American, in foul trouble and eventually fouling out with eight points and eight rebounds, Iriafen took 30 shots against Iowa State. She has set herself up to succeed Brink as an All-American as well as an NCAA Player of the Year candidate when the Cardinal play next season in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Stanford's Kiki Iriafen #44 runs downcourt with Cameron Brink after scoring a basket against Norfolk State during the first round of the NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament at Maples Pavilion in Stanford, Calif., Friday, March 22, 2024. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)
The ascension of Kiki Iriafen (44) alongside All-American Cameron Brink (22) has made Stanford formidable in the paint entering the NCAA Sweet 16. Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group

Besides Iriafen’s effectiveness, her play exudes joy and enthusiasm. She playfully blew kisses to the raucous Norfolk State band in Stanford’s first NCAA game, then credited Iowa State for its intensity and effort.

“It’s physical, but they have great sportsmanship, which I love,” Iriafen said. “So we were able to battle against each other and at the end of the day pick each other up. It was very competitive, and nothing was easy. That’s what makes it fun.”

More fun awaits in 2024, but it’s fair to wonder what’s in store for Iriafen as a senior before moving on to the WNBA or a career in design engineering (her major) or fashion modeling. She took only six 3-point shots as a junior and made two, and then there’s also the possibility of slamming one home.

According to former Stanford star and ESPN analyst Chiney Ogumuike, it’s possible.

“I’ll never forget after a workout a few years ago, my trainer asked me to stay and meet this high schooler he believed was next up at Stanford,” Ogwumike said on Twitter/X. “She ended our workout with a dunk.”

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