“It’s been chaotic, hectic,” said Stanford forward Haley Jones, who was named the NCAA women’s tournament’s most outstanding player. “It was just a long, very difficult journey. Being on the road, sleeping in hotels, living out of your bag. It’s just a lot. You’re on the bus. You’re on planes all the time. And there’s just never really an end in sight.
“But I think from that experience . . . it just really grew this extra chip on our shoulder. We just had something extra to us this year. I think it came from just being resilient from all the things we went through. . . . We’re resilient. We’re gritty. [The coaches] always say, ‘No more nice girls from Stanford.’”
The world seemed to stand still as Arizona star Aari McDonald, who scored a game-high 22 points, got the ball with six seconds remaining and an opportunity to win the game. She dribbled to the top of the arc and was rushed by three defenders, but she still got the shot up over their outstretched arms. The ball caromed off the rim, and a magical run for the third-seeded Wildcats came to an end.
“It was going to be Aari or nothing,” Arizona Coach Adia Barnes said. “At that point, we’ve been on Aari’s back for the whole tournament. She’s got to take that shot. It still had a chance of going in. But I have to put the ball in her hands in that situation because she’s one of the reasons why we’re here.”
McDonald added, “She trusts me to put the team on my back, ride or die.”
Jones led Stanford with 17 points and added eight rebounds. Cameron Brink had 10 points, six rebounds and three blocks, while Lexie Hull finished with 10 points and 10 rebounds.
Shaina Pellington was every bit as important as McDonald for the Wildcats with 15 points and seven rebounds.
After the final shot missed, Jones and her teammates huddled together near midcourt, with confetti raining down as coaches cut the nets, and danced as a group to Alicia Keys’s “Girl on Fire.”
Arizona was down 10 points in the third quarter but closed the period with a 9-2 run to cut Stanford’s lead to 43-40 going into the final 10 minutes. Stanford had answered every time Arizona made it close, and this time was no exception. It scored six straight points, including a pair of buckets from Jones, to push the lead back to 49-40.
The scrappy Wildcats refused to roll over and used a 10-2 run, including a roar-inducing three-pointer from McDonald, to cut the lead to 51-50 with 3:37 left.
Jones answered with a reverse-pivot layup, was fouled and hit the free throw to push the lead to 54-50 with 2:24 remaining. Those three points proved to be enough.
Stanford guard Kiana Williams reminisced about the team getting back to campus in September and having to quarantine for five days. On the fourth day, the players sneaked out to play pickup basketball. Coach Tara VanDerveer, who became the winningest coach in women’s college basketball history this season, found out. Williams said the coach was “heartbroken,” but they vowed to make up for it from that point forward by winning a national championship.
“The adversity that we faced off the court helped us on the court,” VanDerveer said. “I’m so proud of this team. Not just for their basketball but for being able to get through this covid and be so mature.
“[In September], it was a breach of protocol. . . . I was hurt, and I was upset, and I let them know that. I think, though, that developed more trust with us . . . and they understood that you have to be accountable. . . . That incident helped us. . . . That really set the tone that we’re going to be honest and we’re going to be trustworthy.”
Coaches love to use the cliche that basketball is a game of runs, but the first half of the championship game proved that cliches are often rooted in truth. Stanford opened the game with a 14-3 burst, with five different players putting points on the board as the Arizona defense looked a bit soft early. A Trinity Baptiste three-pointer off a McDonald kick-out cut the lead to 16-8 after the first quarter as the Wildcats began to settle in and play their typically stout defense.
Arizona started the second quarter with a 13-4 stretch capped by a steal and layup by Pellington, giving the Wildcats their first lead (21-20) since it was 3-2. The defense started turning Stanford over, and the Cardinal had 10 turnovers in the first 20 minutes.
The Cardinal, however, responded with an 11-0 run and took a 31-24 lead into halftime.
The matchup was the seventh women’s final to feature teams from the same conference and the first all-Pac-12 title game. VanDerveer previously led the Cardinal to championships in 1990 and 1992.
All-tournament team: Zia Cooke (South Carolina), Paige Bueckers (U-Conn.), Aari McDonald (Arizona), Lexie Hull (Stanford) and most outstanding player Haley Jones (Stanford).
— Story by Kareem Copeland