Stanford's Cameron Brink knows she has a foul problem -- and she's working on it

Cameron Brink has fouled out of just one game this season. But she missed most of a pivotal overtime period vs. South Carolina, Stanford's only loss this season. Larry Placido/Icon Sportswire

STANFORD, Calif. -- From the moment she stepped on court as a Stanford freshman in 2020, Cameron Brink looked like a can't-miss star. Two years, two Final Four appearances and one national championship later, that seems all the more certain -- for the rest of her Cardinal career and beyond in the WNBA.

Just one thing has slowed her down: the official's whistle.

"It's been my biggest challenge," Brink said of foul trouble that sometimes has forced her to the bench in critical moments. "Some games they let a lot go. Other games, from tipoff, it's very tight. And then sometimes it changes at halftime. I'm always trying to get a gauge to know, 'I can be this aggressive.' It's a fine balance, and I'm still learning to deal with it. Honestly, it's really hard."

Brink isn't complaining, just being pragmatic. It's an issue to be dealt with and solved. The junior forward is sitting in Stanford's practice gym on a Saturday afternoon, reflecting on what she has done so far and all that's left to accomplish. And how to balance that with her own happiness and well-being.

"I would say girls in general can be very hard on themselves," Brink said. "I see a lot of my teammates I have played with be really hard on themselves, and it just breaks my heart. I see them as such an amazing teammate and player. So I've tried to give myself that grace, like, 'You know you're more than your stat line, you're more than your output.'

"I do get really frustrated, and I'm in a bad mood if I'm not satisfied with my performance. My dad always told me to be a goldfish: have a short memory. It's been a learning process, but having people to support you, your family ... it helps you remember you're not just a player. You're more than just what you produce."

Still, Brink is one of the nation's best, and she relishes the chances to show it. On Sunday, the No. 2 Cardinal face Tennessee (3 p.m. ET, ABC), which comes a month after Stanford's highest-profile game thus far: a 76-71 overtime loss to No. 1 South Carolina.

Brink was exceptional against the Gamecocks on Nov. 20, with 25 points on 8-of-13 shooting, five rebounds and four blocked shots. The only problem? Foul trouble, and her fifth came in overtime, when she scored four points before fouling out with 3:01 to play and Stanford up 65-64. It's her lone disqualification so far this season; she had eight combined her freshman and sophomore years.

"I just want her to relax and play. Cam is a great player," Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said. "She's incredibly athletic and versatile and aggressive. She does have to play with more discipline, and with more patience. But I can't teach someone to do all the things that she does well. I think she can develop the patience and discipline."

Last season ended with a 63-58 loss to UConn in the national semifinals, when Stanford struggled as a team. Brink played 27 minutes and didn't foul out, but with four fouls, her time on court was limited. She finished with 15 points and seven rebounds, but chastised herself at first, knowing it wasn't enough.

"I think the UConn loss was more just kind of heartbreaking, with all my amazing seniors leaving," Brink said. "Afterward, I gave myself the space to say, 'It happened. It's over.' I took time to process my feelings about it. I didn't watch the film from that game for a couple weeks.

"But watching film -- we do a lot of that here. You're going to have to go back and watch your mistakes. That's also been a balance for me: to not take stuff personally, don't be too hard on yourself. Just really take it for what it is. So I learned a lot from that game."

Brink grew up surrounded by hoop dreams, the daughter of two basketball players who competed for Virginia Tech and the goddaughter to the parents of Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry. (Curry and wife Ayesha attended Stanford's win over Cal State Northridge on Nov. 9, 2022.)

She is 6-foot-4 with abundant skills: deft footwork around the basket, shooting touch that extends to beyond the 3-point line, a fearlessness inside, good timing and body control to block shots.

VanDerveer compares Brink's game to that of Cardinal legend and current Los Angeles Sparks star Nneka Ogwumike, the 2016 WNBA MVP who was the league's No. 1 pick out of Stanford in 2012 and is the president of the executive committee of the players' union.

Also like Ogwumike, Brink wants to be known for more than basketball, and mental health advocacy is important to both. With Brink being part of the first generation of Name, Image and Likeness college players, she also is planning strategically the image she hopes to have: one that is authentic to her, and has staying power.

Brink doesn't do things without thinking them through and weighing the options -- which is partly why the foul trouble is so bothersome. She has had to face it while also not dwelling on it too much.

"If someone makes a shot over me -- OK. I'm not going to go out of my way to foul them. That's just good offense beating you," Brink said. "That's definitely been my biggest struggle as a post player. But I also don't want to just be a post player. I want to be versatile. I can step out and play on the perimeter a bit. So I don't want to let myself just be defined by one thing. That's a goal."

Then Brink chuckled and added, "And then also just staying in the game."

VanDerveer has a very long history with great players, part of her legacy along with three national championships. The most recent title was 2021, a hard season in which Stanford was on the road most of the time because of COVID-19 restrictions on campus. Brink was a freshman then, and celebrated along with her teammates in San Antonio as the Cardinal ended a 29-year NCAA title drought.

Stanford had hopes to repeat but fell short last season in Minneapolis. The goals this year are the same as they always are for the Cardinal: win the Pac-12 regular-season title, the league tournament and the NCAA tournament.

Stanford, like South Carolina, is a very deep team. Brink and Hannah Jump top the Cardinal in scoring (12.4 PPG), All-American Haley Jones is the all-purpose triple-threat in scoring, rebounding and assists, and Brink leads the way on the boards (7.6) and blocked shots (3.0). There are many, many different strong combinations of players VanDerveer can use.

But the fact remains: Stanford is at its best when Brink is on the floor. As much as she can, that's where she plans to stay.

"Tara just keeps giving me confidence to just play within myself," Brink said. "It is scary to kind of manifest unnecessary pressure. But my parents were both basketball players at Virginia Tech, and I'd like to think it's in my blood. I came from two amazing athletes.

"I've always been surrounded by great people. The Currys are great family friends. I have all the resources. They say it takes a village, and I definitely have a great village around me. It would be a shame if I didn't take advantage of all of this."