After a 29-year drought, the Stanford women’s basketball team is the national champion once again.
And for the second straight game, the Cardinal had to hold their collective breath as their opponent took the last shot.
Withstanding a late charge, second-ranked Stanford held on for a 54-53 victory over 11th-ranked Arizona on Sunday at the Alamodome in San Antonio to win the program’s third national championship and first since 1992. The other title came in 1990.
“It’s a national championship and I’m really excited to represent Stanford,” legendary Cardinal coach Tara VanDerveer said. “It’s a great team. We did not play a great game today, however. If we can win not playing as well as we need to, I’m excited.”
Not only is it Stanford’s first title since 1992, it is the Pac-12 Conference’s first championship team since then. The Conference of Champions is once again the Conference of Champions in women’s basketball.
Not bad for a team that spent 10 weeks on the road due to COVID-19 protocols in Santa Clara County, but never lost its focus.
Sophomore forward Haley Jones was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player after scoring a team-high 17 points and grabbing eight rebounds for Stanford (31-2), which won its 20th straight game. Junior guard Lexie Hull had 10 points and 10 rebounds, while freshman forward Cameron Brink added 10 points, six rebounds and three blocks. Senior point guard Kiana Williams, who played in high school in San Antonio, had five points and three assists.
Wildcats senior guard Aari McDonald had a game-high 22 points despite 5-of-20 shooting, including missing a shot at the buzzer. Junior guard Shaina Pellington had 15 points, seven rebounds and three steals for Arizona (21-6), which was in the Final Four and playing for the national championship for the first time in program history.
In the first national championship game between two Pac-12 teams, it came down to the last shot.
Stanford held a 49-40 lead when Arizona went on a 10-2 run, capped by a McDonald 3-pointer, to pull within 51-50 with 3 minutes, 35 seconds remaining. But the Cardinal got a three-point play from Jones with 2:24 to go for a 54-50 lead.
Following a Williams miss from the lane, McDonald — the Pac-12 Player of the Year and co-Defensive Player of the Year with Stanford senior guard Anna Wilson — had a steal and was fouled. McDonald made one of two free-throw attempts to pull Arizona within 54-51 with 59.1 seconds remaining. On the ensuing possession, Williams missed from the land and McDonald was fouled in transition. She made both free throws with 36.6 seconds left to trim Stanford’s advantage to 54-53.
Stanford tried to use up as much clock as it could, but Brink couldn’t handle a pass from Williams, which led to a shot-clock violation.
Arizona, which was in the NCAA Tournament after a 16-year absence, had possession of the ball at midcourt with 6.1 seconds left. The ball was inbounded to McDonald, who was guarded by Wilson. McDonald dribbled toward the center of the court, where Wilson was joined by Hull and Brink in applying pressure. McDonald was forced to take a turnaround jumper with one foot inside the 3-point line that was just a little strong, giving Stanford the national title.
Coincidentally, Sunday marked the 125th anniversary of the first intercollegiate women’s basketball game, played between Stanford and Cal on April 4, 1896. The 9-on-9 game ended in a 2-1 Stanford victory at the Page Street Armory in San Francisco.
In two regular-season meetings, Stanford easily won 81-54 on New Year’s Day in Tucson and 62-48 on Feb. 22 at Maples Pavilion. But this was the first clash between the programs in NCAA Tournament history.
The first half featured runs by both teams. The Cardinal had the first one, a 12-0 burst that included back-to-back 3-pointers by Prechtel and Williams to take a 14-3 lead with 5:21 left in the first quarter.
Arizona — which knocked off top-ranked Connecticut 69-59 in the national semifinals — was within 16-8 after the first quarter, then opened the second quarter with a 9-2 run to cut Stanford’s lead to 18-17. The Wildcats took their first lead since 3-2 on Pellington’s steal and layup with 4:53 left in the half.
But Stanford countered immediately with a Brink putback that started an 11-0 run that included a four-point play by Hull to boost the Cardinal’s lead back to 31-21 just 1:21 before halftime. Stanford led 31-24 at halftime thanks to shooting 44.8 percent (13-of-29), but did commit 10 turnovers while only forcing three by Arizona as the Wildcats shot 28.1 percent (9-of-32).
The third quarter started with Stanford building a 41-31 lead, but the Wildcats’ defense — which has been stellar during the NCAA Tournament — turned up the pressure and sparked a 7-0 run that pulled Arizona with 41-38 with 2:56 left in third. It was 43-40 going into the fourth quarter.
Stanford held Arizona to 28.8 percent (17-of-59) shooting and never allowed an opponent to shoot better than 41.8 percent in a game. The Cardinal made four more 3-pointers, their lowest total of the NCAA Tournament, but finished with a tournament-record 59.
VanDerveer becomes the fourth coach with three national titles. Also, this was the fifth time in 35 seasons under VanDerveer that Stanford finished with two or fewer losses.
With Williams and Wilson the only seniors in the regular playing rotation — and still a possibility for both to return plus adding two top-20 recruits — the Cardinal are likely to open next season as the No. 1 team in the nation. It could be the start of a new era of Stanford success.