Stanford staved off South Carolina in a wild Final Four semifinal finish Friday to win, 66-65, and advance to their first title game appearance in 11 years.
The sequence began with 32 seconds remaining, as Cardinal guard Haley Jones knocked down a midrange jump shot to give her team the lead. Gamecock forward Aliyah Boston stole the ball at the nine-second mark, and after Brea Beal’s layup attempt missed, Boston’s put-back at the buzzer was too strong and rimmed out.
Jones led Stanford to its fifth national championship game in program history with 24 points, while Lexie Hull had 18 points. Zia Cooke scored 25 points for South Carolina, Destanni Henderson 18, and Boston added 11 points and 16 rebounds.
The Gamecocks jumped out to a 15-6 lead to begin the matchup, but the Cardinal punched back in the second quarter to take a 31-26 lead into halftime. Both teams defended each other effectively underneath the basket, capping shooting percentages at 34.4 percent for Stanford and 27.6 percent for South Carolina. The teams combined for 11 blocks at the break.
Both teams went back and forth in the third period thanks to a shootout between Jones and Cooke, who each scored 11 points. Henderson put in six straight points in the fourth quarter to give the Gamecocks the lead, but the Jones bucket sealed the win.
The composure of the Cardinal – and especially Jones – in the game’s final minute kept the game from slipping out of their grasp.
“Haley had a great game. She is a poised and relaxed player,” coach Tara VanDerveer said. “She had a great game, made some really big plays for us. But I think that everyone recognized what we had to do. It was a real exciting ending obviously.”
“Haley was ready for whatever we needed her to do. She got the ball inbounds, then we just needed to hang on to it.”
Stanford spent more than two months on the road during this pandemic season, as COVID protocols in their home county didn’t allow them to practice at school. The extra time together made the team closer, and enabled them to grow on and off the court.
“I’m so blessed to be able to be here with this team. I love each and every player,” Jones said. “I have such a great connection with each of them and the coaching staff. I think this is such a special year, we’ve been through so much together. Now putting ourselves on this stage, it just means so much to us. We’re not going to take a second for granted.”
“Tomorrow at practice, film, we watch a lot of film, so we’re going to take everything because Tara always says this is the last time you’re going to be in this space with this group of people. We only have two days left of our season.”
VanDerveer last led the Cardinal to a title in 1992. Jones said she and her teammates would like to win it again Sunday.
“So many greats and legends in my opinion have come from Stanford. We see them in the walls of our locker room every day,” she said. “To be able to bring us back to this national championship stage is just an honor to be able to do that, for Tara, for the team, for the program. We still got one more game, so we’re excited to do what we can with that, hopefully come out with a dub….just kind of leave our mark, and the legacy.”
South Carolina, and especially Boston, was crushed by the loss. As her put-back failed and the final buzzer sounded, Boston dissolved into tears. Staley wasn’t surprised by her reaction.
“Aliyah is wired that way for a reason. She’s a perfectionist,” Staley said. “She is one that really studies the game and thinks about the game. She holds herself to a higher standard. That’s not part of her standard. So that’s why it hurt so much, because it’s something that she practices all the time.”
Staley planned to have a discussion with Boston later.
“(A win) wasn’t in the cards. We’ll talk to her and try to get her to move off of it,” Staley said. “She won’t because she’s just wired like that. I don’t think it will impact her if she’s in that situation. I don’t think she would change her shot if she thought, ‘Oh, I can miss this.’ She’s not that type of player that’s going to allow that shot to impact her next shot, her next move in the journey that she has in basketball.”
“But when she’s back in her room, she’s going to cry. I know it. She’s going to cry. She’s going to cry a whole lot. But when it’s time for us to pick back up and get back on the court in a couple of weeks, she’ll move on.”
If history is an indicator, the Cardinal may go on to win the Championship, as they did in 1992 after defeating Staley’s Virginia Cavaliers in the national semifinals. Staley recounted that with .8 seconds on the game clock, she was tasked with taking the ball as a defender with fresh legs came to guard her.
“I’m thinking, ‘Okay, well, I broke away from her,’ and just heaved up a shot,” Staley said. “I thought about it. I’m like, ‘I could have gotten her to foul me.’ She’s so fresh and gung-ho about denying me the basketball, I should have started my breakout and stopped. She would have just actually ran me over. I could have just kind of lied down and faked a foul and went to the free-throw line.”
“So that stays with me. That’s 29 years later. But from 29 years ago to now, I mean, there are so many great memories that replace that. It only comes up when I’m asked.”
The score of that game? Stanford 66, Virginia 65.
The Cardinal will play Arizona in the title game Sunday.