No. 1 overall seed Stanford got the job done in a season unlike any other and one that kept it on the road for most of the season.
The Cardinal outlasted No. 3 seed Arizona, 54-53, in the NCAA women's basketball national championship game from San Antonio on Sunday night. It is Stanford's first title since 1992 and the third overall for the program, all under head coach Tara VanDerveer. Stanford is the first team in either men's or women's tournament to pull off one-point wins in the national semifinal and national championship games, per ESPN.
Arizona senior Aari McDonald missed the final shot at the buzzer as Stanford created trouble on the inbound and trapped her up top with four defenders. McDonald's shot hit the back iron as the buzzer light went off and the Stanford players stormed midcourt in celebration.
It was the Wildcats' first national title appearance; their previous best performance was the Sweet 16. The all-Pac-12 final was the first for the conference in men's or women's basketball history.
Stanford spent two months on the road this season because of COVID-19 restrictions in Santa Clara county and are the most fitting squad in any sport to win a "COVID championship."
"Getting through all the things we got through, we're excited to win the COVID championship," VanDerveer said on the ESPN broadcast. "The other one was not quite as close, the last one. But we're really excited. No one knows the score, no one knows who scored, it's a national championship and I'm really excited to represent Stanford. It's a great team. We did not play a great game today, however. But if we can win, not playing as well as we need to, I'm excited."
Jones leads Stanford in title game
VanDerveer likens her team to an orchestra where a different soloist steps up every night. It was again sophomore Haley Jones, named the final's Most Outstanding Player, who took over the lead performance and scored the final Stanford points.
Jones scored 17 points on 5-for-9 shooting and hit them at the most clutch times. She added six rebounds in a dominating night for Stanford as the Cardinal beat the Wildcats on the boards, 47-29. It held advantages in second-chance points and paint points.
McDonald drilled a 3-pointer to pull Arizona within one, 51-50, with 3:25 on the clock. The senior struggled from the floor in the title game, a stark drop from her production from behind the arc up to this point.
Jones hit a clutch jumper for Stanford and made the and-1 to pull four points away with 2:24 and give Stanford enough.
"Down the stretch, I knew if the ball came to me, I knew I had to shoot it," Jones said. "And I had confidence in myself to make those shots."
It was then McDonald's turn again. She made three of four free throws within the final minutes to again pull Arizona into the game, 54-53, with 36.6 seconds to play.
Arizona forced Stanford into a shot-clock violation to give its offense 6.1 seconds with which to work, but the Cardinal collapsed on Arizona's star.
"It was Aari or nothing," Arizona head coach Adia Barnes said. "We’d been on Aari’s back the whole tournament so she’s got to take that shot."
McDonald finishes her collegiate career with 93 consecutive double-digit games after a 22-point showing. She was 5-for-20 from the floor and 4-for-9 from 3-point range, adding three rebounds, two assists and two steals.
The Cardinal have taken away McDonald's shot throughout her four-year career, keeping her to under 30 percent against them heading into the final. Her performance in the tournament will lift her WNBA draft stock when the night comes April 15.
Cardinal depth too much throughout tournament
Foul trouble, shooting woes, matchup issues — it does not matter. VanDerveer goes 11 deep every time out and has the talent down the roster to do it. Jones led the pack but had help from freshman Cameron Brink, who had 10 points, six rebounds and a pivotal block of McDonald late.
Lexie Hull kept up her strong tournament run with a 10-point, 10-rebound double-double. Ashten Prechtel had seven points, eight rebounds and three assists off the bench. Point guard Kiana Williams scored five, as did defensive specialist Anna Wilson, and the Cardinal won it in Williams' hometown.
Arizona didn't have the offensive weapons to keep up with all of it, even while turning Stanford over 21 times. Cate Reese and Sam Thomas, the top targets after McDonald, were ineffective. Reese had four points while Thomas had seven rebounds.
Shaina Pellington took up the task of complementing McDonald. She came off the bench to score 15 points with seven rebounds and three steals. Her transition game and speed kept Arizona in it in the second half.
McDonald rushed in first half
Stanford came out hot to build a 12-3 lead off 3-pointers by Ashten Prechtel and Kiana Williams. The Cardinal rattled off a 12-0 run to take their largest lead, 14-3, and head into the second quarter up, 16-8. Arizona had its opportunities off of stout defense and three turnovers, but connected on 3-of-19 shooting with four missed shots under the basket.
The Wildcats answered with their own 12-2 run that carried over into the second quarter and took their first lead, 21-20, at 4:44 with a characteristic steal-and-score by Pellington. Stanford went back up by 10 with a four-point play by Lexis Hull, a floater by Williams kept alive with an offensive rebound by Alyssa Jerome, a defensive stuff of McDonald in the left side of the paint and a 3-pointer by Anna Wilson. Pellington's layup and-1 brought the Wildcats within seven by the half, 31-24.
McDonald said on the ESPN broadcast she was "pressing a little bit" and needed to "let the game come to me" instead of rush it. She was 2-for-11, including 1-of-3 from range, for five points, two assists and two steals at half. But the rest of her teammates kept Arizona in it as five players had at least three points each.
Stanford, meanwhile, kept upping its tournament-record 3-point clip by shooting 4-for-8 from behind the arc and 13-of-29 overall. Four different players hit shots from 3-point range. Hull led all scorers with eight and Prechtel had seven off the bench. Stanford outrebounded Arizona, 26-14, but turned it over 10 times and allowed Arizona to keep close in the half.
Arizona forces Stanford into turnovers
Stanford turned it over seven times in the third quarter, though Arizona continued to have trouble turning it into points and McDonald struggled from the floor. Pellington's speed helped turn momentum to Arizona's favor. She grabbed a defensive rebound with 3:11 left and went all the way to cap a 7-0 run with the help of an excellent box-out to clear her way. It cut the deficit to three, 41-38.
The Cardinal turned it over two consecutive times, but McDonald missed an open 3-pointer and tripped in the paint. Jones broke the run with a drive to her right as the Cardinal ran with a smaller lineup. Pellington scored a final basket on a turnover and the defense forced Wilson into a turnover to go into the final quarter trailing, 43-40.
Jones and Cameron Brink combined for six points at the start of the quarter as it looked like Stanford would pull away. As they have all night, the Wildcats didn't go quietly and Pellington's and-1 brought them back within four, 51-47, with five minutes to play.
Historic title game for Arizona, Pac-12
It was the first time in women's or men's NCAA basketball tournament history that two Pac-12 teams met in the final. In the women's game it's the seventh championship game featuring teams from the same conference. The last was in 2017 when South Carolina won its first championship over Mississippi State.
"This is honestly a dream come true for us in the Pac-12 because for so long, the conference has not gotten the respect that I feel it deserves," VanDerveer said ahead of the game.
The meeting guaranteed the Pac-12 would win its first women's basketball title since 1992, when Stanford won it last. Arizona's entrance in the Final Four this year marked the fourth time in six seasons a Pac-12 team has made its first trip to the semifinals. The West Coast disrespect has lessened in recent years with Oregon's rise, but is still there.
"For me to constantly see the Pac-12 have no respect, it's continuously and it's always happening," Arizona coach Adia Barnes said. "So now I'm hoping that with both of us in the championship game, that the Pac-12 will get more respect, and the East Coast bias will stop. It's not going to stop overnight, but I think that you need to respect the Pac-12 a lot more."
Barnes became the second Division I women's basketball coach to take her team to the title game in her first NCAA tournament as head coach. She joins Leon Barmore of Louisiana Tech in 1983. Arizona's deepest tournament run was the Sweet 16 when Barnes was a player. The Wildcats' last NCAA tournament was in 2005.
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