For the first time since 2010, the second-ranked Stanford women’s basketball team is going to play for the national championship.
But it didn’t come without a dramatic finish.
The Cardinal withstood a turnover and two last-second shots by sixth-ranked South Carolina to pull out a 66-65 victory over the Gamecocks on Friday in the first national semifinal at the Final Four at San Antonio’s Alamodome. Stanford (30-2) will take a 19-game winning streak into Sunday’s 3 p.m. national title game against either top-ranked Connecticut (28-1) or 11th-ranked Arizona (20-5).
Sophomore guard Haley Jones hit a go-ahead 16-foot jumper with 32 seconds left to put the Cardinal — the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament — in position for the program’s third national title and first since 1992. It will be Stanford’s fifth appearance in the championship game.
As with everything else this season, closing out South Carolina (26-5) — the No. 1 seed out of the Mercado Region and winner of seven straight — wasn’t easy for coach Tara VanDerveer’s Cardinal.
Leading 64-59, junior guard Destanni Henderson gave the Gamecocks a fighting chance. Henderson converted a three-point play with 1 minute, 18 seconds left, then drained a 3-pointer from the right wing with 39.1 seconds left to give South Carolina a 65-64 lead. It was the Gamecocks’ first lead since the first quarter.
Stanford had possession with 9.1 seconds left when South Carolina forced a turnover by freshman forward Cameron Brink. Sophomore forward Aliyah Boston came up with the ball and dished to sophomore guard Brea Beal, who drove from halfcourt and missed a right-handed runner from the left side of the rim. The rebound came straight out to Boston — a consensus All-American — whose putback attempt was too strong as the buzzer sounded and Stanford escaped with the victory.
Jones, a former Archbishop Mitty of San Jose star, finished with 24 points on 11-of-14 shooting to go along with four rebounds and two assists despite missing the second quarter with foul trouble. Junior guard Lexi Hull had 18 points, 13 rebounds and four assists for Stanford.
While those two were the only Cardinal in double-figure scoring, contributions came from everywhere. Sophomore forward Ashten Prechtel stepped in with Jones and Brink in foul trouble to finish with nine points, eight rebounds and two blocks. Senior guard Kiana Williams shot just 4-of-14 to finish with eight points, while Brink had six points, four rebounds and six blocked shots.
Sophomore guard Zia Cooke was a constant threat from the outside and finished with 25 points to lead South Carolina, while Henderson had 18 points and five rebounds and Boston added 11 points, 16 rebounds and four blocks. It was Boston’s 17th double-double of the season.
Stanford nearly was the first team all season to outrebound the Gamecocks, who were strong in that respect down the stretch to earn a 40-36 edge. South Carolina had been outrebounding opponents by 14.8 boards per game.
But the Cardinal defense did keep one impressive streak intact. By holding South Carolina to 35.8 percent shooting (24-of-67), Stanford has not allowed an opponent to shoot better than 41.8 percent all season.
Also, Stanford became the most prolific 3-point shooting team in NCAA Tournament history by going 5-of-8 Friday. That gave the Cardinal 55 3-pointers in five games, surpassing the previous mark of 54 by UConn in 2015.
Each team had their moments to begin the game. First, South Carolina showed balance and defense in jumping out to leads of 11-2 and 15-6, limiting the Cardinal to a 3-of-9 start shooting. But thanks to Jones, Stanford stayed in the game early, scoring the Cardinal’s first six points. The tide turned as Stanford’s defense clamped down and the offense scored the last nine points of the first quarter, which ended 15-15.
The second quarter was a bit more of a slugfest. Jones drew her second foul late in the first quarter and didn’t play in the second. Brink, battling a hamstring injury, also picked up her second foul during the second quarter. Even without those two key players, the Cardinal held the Gamecocks without a basket for 7:25 of the first half as they regained their footing and held the lead throughout the second quarter, including 31-25 at the break.
Prechtel was a key in the second quarter with Jones and Brink on the bench, scoring seven points and grabbing four rebounds in the period and finishing with seven rebounds for the half.
VanDerveer gets national honor
After navigating the Cardinal through a tumultuous season and becoming the winningest women’s coach in history, VanDerveer was named Naismith Coach of the Year. She also won the honor in 1990 and 2011.
For two months, Stanford was unable to play or practice on campus due to Santa Clara County’s COVID-19 protocols that banned contact sports. Regardless, the Cardinal thrived for the two months between home games and remained among the nation’s best teams.
During that stretch, VanDerveer passed Tennessee legend Pat Summitt for the most career victories. That came with a 104-61 triumph Dec. 15 over Pacific in Stockton that gave VanDerveer her 1,099th career win. She was named Pac-12 Conference Coach of the Year for the 16th time this season.
Entering Friday’s national semifinal, VanDerveer has a record of 1,123-255 in 42 seasons, including 971-204 in 35 seasons at Stanford. She is already a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame. Stanford has won at least 20 games for 20 straight seasons.