Stanford finishes tough year with hard-fought, long-awaited National Championship

SAN ANTONIO, TX – APRIL 4: Stanford Cardinal players celebrate with the trophy after their win over the Arizona Wildcats in the championship game of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament at Alamodome on April 4, 2021 in San Antonio, Texas. Photo by Ben Solomon/NCAA Photos via Getty Images.

Stanford capped one of the most thrilling NCAA Tournaments in years with a heart-stopping 54-53 win over Arizona Sunday to win their first National Championship in 29 years.

It was a hard-fought matchup between two Pac-12 teams that had already faced each other twice in the regular season, and as Cardinal coach Tara VanDerveer said afterward, “it wasn’t pretty, but it was gritty.”

Her team committed an uncharacteristic 21 turnovers and stole the ball just once, but their tough defense limited the Wildcats to just 28.3 percent shooting and 29 rebounds. Yet, it took a stop at the buzzer to put away the win.

Aari McDonald’s free throws got Arizona within a point with 36.6 seconds to go, but after a timeout Stanford ran out the shot clock without making an attempt. The ball was inbounded to McDonald with 6.1 seconds left, but her contested shot as time expired bounced off the rim.

Haley Jones, who was named the tournament’s most outstanding player, lead the Cardinal with 17 points and 8 rebounds. Lexie Hull, named to the all-tournament team, had 10 points and 10 rebounds, and freshman Cameron Brink had 10 points.

Senior point guard Kiana Williams promised three weeks ago, after Stanford won the Pac-12 Tournament, that her team would be the last one standing in San Antonio, her home town. She said her faith never wavered, despite two close games.

“I never doubted this team for one minute,” Williams said. “Tara kept telling us after every practice, in the locker room, in between games and stuff that we’re the best team here. We just have to go out there and prove it. I feel like we were ranked No. 1 for a reason.”

“We had to go out there and give it our all and fight. The last two, three games were dogfights. We came out on top because we wanted it more.”

The Cardinal got out to a 14-3 start in the first quarter, and it took the Wildcats until the second period to get going. They lead 21-20 before Stanford went on an 11-0 run to take a 31-24 advantage into halftime.

SAN ANTONIO, TX – APRIL 4: Stanford Cardinal players celebrate their win over the Arizona Wildcats in the championship game of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament at Alamodome on April 4, 2021 in San Antonio, Texas. Photo by Ben Solomon/NCAA Photos via Getty Images.

They continued their run in the third until Arizona found their wings and scored 9 points to cut the lead to 43-40 heading into the final frame. Jones scored three buckets and then McDonald, who had been just 2-11 in the first half, ignited to lead the Wildcat charge, which set up the final stanza.

It was the third title for VanDerveer, whose team also won it all in 1990. The 29-year gap is the longest in Division I, women’s or men’s. She is the fourth coach to win three National Championships.

The last time the Cardinal played for the Championship was 2010, also in San Antonio. Before and after that were Pac-12 championship wins and injuries that kept the team from going all the way. VanDerveer said this year’s title was a tribute to all who had paved the way.

“I really feel like we won this for all of the great players that have played at Stanford,” VanDerveer said. “Going back to, we went to three Elite 8’s and never made to it Final Four with great players like Candice Wiggins, Brooke Smith, Jillian Harmon. Then we got to the Final Four with Candice and Roz and Nneka and Chiney and Jayne Appel.”

“We were right here in San Antonio, had the lead at halftime. Jayne was playing on a broken foot. Since then, going to the Final Four with great players like Erica McCall and Karlie Samuelson, Karlie sprains her ankle.”

VanDerveer said she hadn’t thought about winning another title after the second one.

“This isn’t why I coach. I wanted to be a teacher,” she said. “Each year is a great year. I enjoy working with all of our players.”

For the Wildcats, the game was a triumph even in losing because they were a No. 3 seed that wasn’t picked to reach the Final Four, much less the Championship game.

SAN ANTONIO, TX – APRIL 4: Aari McDonald #2 of the Arizona Wildcats tries to shoot over Lexie Hull #12 of the Stanford Cardinal during the championship game of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament at Alamodome on April 4, 2021 in San Antonio, Texas. Photo by Justin Tafoya/NCAA Photos via Getty Images.

McDonald, who finished with 22 points, was the both the conference and defensive player of the year. She followed coach Adia Barnes to Tucson when she got the job there, and has helped build it into a powerhouse. Arizona spent the entire season ranked in the top 10.

In Friday’s semifinal, McDonald single-handedly flustered the UConn offense to pace her team to an upset win. She said she is proud of the progress she and her teammates have made.

“I think that we showed we had a lot of growth over these last couple years,” McDonald said. “Coach Barnes bringing in the players that are willing to work, that are competitive. That helped our culture change tremendously. I mean, I’m just really proud of these ladies. I’m very thankful for them and the coaches.”

She said she learned that she and the rest of the Wildcats became mentally tough.

“We had thick skin, we have mental toughness,” McDonald said. “It showed throughout this tournament. Before we got in from the start, coach Barnes said the two teams that play for the championship, those are the teams that are mentally tough. I think we showed that.”

Barnes said she is most proud of her team for their fight and refusal to give up.

“They always say, ‘we have that dog mentality,’ I’ll remember that,” she said. “I remember when everybody around the country didn’t believe in us, counted us out, we believed in each other. We did that. We celebrated each other. We fought and we made it to the championship game.”

“We’re not the best team in the country. We’re not the deepest team, not the tallest team. But we fought, we played some good defense. I think we played some of the best defense in the country.”

SAN ANTONIO, TX – APRIL 4: Haley Jones #30 of the Stanford Cardinal drives to the basket against Sam Thomas #14 of the Arizona Wildcats during the championship game of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament at Alamodome on April 4, 2021 in San Antonio, Texas. Photo by Ben Solomon/NCAA Photos via Getty Images.

The game capped what was a hard season for every collegiate team, as they navigated COVID testing, COVID protocols and pauses as the nation and the world grappled with a pandemic.

The Wildcats saw a few games canceled when they went on a COVID pause. Barnes said it made them stronger.

“They stuck together. They fought. They were resilient. They handled adversity. They didn’t complain. They didn’t second-guess things,” she said. “We ask a lot. I ask a lot from them off the court, on the court. We do a lot at Arizona, whether it’s community service, a little less this year because of COVID, but tons of skill work, a lot of little things, and they did it. They never complained. They never questioned the things I asked them to do.”

In Santa Clara County, where Stanford is, restrictions kept the Cardinal from practicing at school, so they lived on the road for nine weeks. But it was an incident that happened in the fall that set the tone for the season.

Athletes were supposed to quarantine after arriving on campus and being tested for COVID. But close to the end of the allotted period, they left to play pickup ball at the gym. When VanDerveer found out, she was upset. Williams and senior co-captain Alyssa Jerome took it to heart.

“I felt like the only way to make up for that is to win a national championship for her,” Williams said. “Me and Alyssa, we said from there on out we’re going to be better leaders, follow the rules, follow protocol, to win this natty, to look back on that experience, having that feeling to now, I’m extremely proud of this team.”

VanDerveer said the incident proved to be a turning point and a learning experience.

“I think, though, that developed more trust with us as a staff with our players,” she said. “They understood that you have to be accountable. But since then, we did have staff test positive, three staff, but no players. I think that incident helped us because they were quarantined for 14 days. That cut into our practice beginning of the year. They realize, I don’t want to be in quarantine any more.”

“It was a very tough year. That was just the beginning of it. But I think that really set the tone, that said, We’re going to be honest, we’re going to be trustworthy, and we need that from all of us.”