STANFORD, Calif. – Toni Kokenis never generated much hype as Stanford's third-best incoming freshman last fall.
Chiney Ogwumike had the National Player of the Year pedigree and proven lineage as younger sister to Cardinal star Nnemkadi Ogwumike. Highly regarded Sara James had the All-American status and was considered the program's next point guard to succeed senior Pac-10 Player of the Year Jeanette Pohlen.
Lately, though, it has been Kokenis that coach Tara VanDerveer immediately turns to off the bench when Stanford needs a boost.
She has given the Cardinal key minutes in the biggest of games — and that's been the case even after she sat out two weeks with a concussion.
Next up for top-seeded Stanford (31-2) in its quest for a fourth straight Final Four is a date with No. 5 North Carolina in the Spokane Regional semifinals Saturday night.
VanDerveer calls Kokenis her "sixth starter." The reliable Kokenis often plays more minutes than junior starter Lindy La Rocque.
In the Cardinal's 86-59 first-round NCAA tournament victory over UC Davis last Saturday, Kokenis knocked down three of her team's season-best 13 3-pointers on the way to 11 points in 25 minutes. She also dished out three assists.
Before that, she scored a game-high and career-best 17 points on 7-of-9 shooting as Stanford rallied in the second half to beat UCLA 64-55 in the Pac-10 tournament title game March 12.
"I just wanted to be able to come in and help contribute to the team to help us be as successful as we could be," Kokenis said of her expectations as a freshman. "I would say definitely (I have benefited from) more practice and getting more reps and playing against pressure and taking advantage of the reps you get when you are out on the court."
Her comeback has been impressive to say the least.
Kokenis was sidelined after getting fouled in the head in the closing minutes of a 64-38 win over UCLA on Jan. 20. She returned at Arizona State on Feb. 3. Then, facing the Bruins again exactly a month after her injury in Los Angeles, Kokenis scored 13 points and made three steals in 37 minutes — her most playing time yet.
"Toni has played extremely well for us. Once she came back from when she was hit, she has really finished strong," VanDerveer said. "When you look at a lot of the top teams, it's really amazing the number of freshmen who are huge contributors. So many young players are coming into situations and playing so well."
Kokenis checked in at the 16:47 mark of the first half in a 75-49 second-round NCAA win against St. John's on Monday night, only to leave late in the half with a sprained left ankle. X-rays were negative and VanDerveer hopes to have Kokenis at full strength for Saturday's game in Spokane.
She has shown already that she is resilient and a student of the game. After the head injury, Kokenis spent more time watching video to ensure she didn't fall behind.
"Being out with my concussion was a bit of a bummer," she said. "And then coming back, I have great teammates and they really helped me feel more comfortable — so it's just feeling more comfortable in general with our offense and what I can do to contribute to our team and what I can bring off the bench."
There's a good chance Kokenis will be in the starting lineup next season after Stanford loses Pohlen and do-everything senior Kayla Pedersen.
The departing players feel as if the program is in good hands with returners such as Kokenis to complement star sisters Nnemkadi and Chiney Ogwumike inside.
"She definitely has stepped up," Pedersen said of Kokenis. "I don't think she lets any of that affect her, like any of the hype or anything. Toni just comes in and she is fearless. She doesn't really care about anything besides getting the job done and how she can help us. If that means stepping up big for us in a game, like she did at UCLA, then that is what it is. Or if it means making the pass to the post, that is what she does. I just think that selfless mentality is really making her stand out right now."