Women's Championship Game • Perspective
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Haley Jones first had to look within. Now she’s the player Stanford can’t be without.

Stanford guard Haley Jones, named outstanding player in last year's NCAA tournament after leading the Cardinal to the national title, says that belief in herself has been her biggest area of growth since coming to Palo Alto. (Young Kwak/AP)
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SPOKANE, Wash. — Haley Jones calls it her “come-to-Jesus moment” as she looks back and lets loose that trademark smile that spreads so wide it makes her eyes squint. That same smile seems to radiate warmth through television screens across the country.

Stanford’s do-everything guard, the NCAA tournament’s reigning Most Outstanding Player, was just a freshman two years ago when she suffered a knee injury that ended her season after 18 games. Less than two months later, all of college basketball was shut down because of the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Campuses closed, and the Santa Cruz, Calif., native found herself back home, nursing an injury and feeling lost and isolated.

“I’m not even doing rehab on campus, and I’m just like, ‘It’s really going to come from me,’ ” Jones said. “I have to be the one. I have to go do my rehab. I have to do my schoolwork on Zoom. I have to go do this and that. Whatever I want, I’m a have to go get it.

“Being away from the game in that sense and not being able to do my normal routine made me shift my focus and find out, really, who I was, what I believe and what I want to do.”

The idea of the first-team all-American and former No. 1 high school prospect not being supremely assured of herself seems tough to fathom for anyone who has watched her thrive for the Cardinal the past two seasons. The 6-foot-1 junior runs the Stanford offense with precision, putting her fingerprints on the game well beyond the box score.

Jones says that belief in herself has been her biggest area of growth since coming to Palo Alto. On the court and off, she has become a leader. It hasn’t always been like that.

As a teenager, there was a long stretch when Jones didn’t feel as if she fit in, really, anywhere as a biracial girl. She was uncomfortable being tall, and the long, bouncing, curly brown hair that has become one of the most recognizable coifs in women’s basketball wasn’t so admired in high school. There were times she had to go to drag queen websites to get shoes for the school dance.

“You know, I don't really fit in on either spectrum, so it's been very difficult,” Jones said. “I love being able to inspire the next generation and help them work through problems and give them a role model that I didn't have.”

Jones has reached that status within her own team. She’s the floor general for the top-seeded Cardinal (31-3), which beat Maryland on Friday in the Sweet 16, despite not leading the team in points or rebounds. The Cardinal, which has won 23 straight — the longest winning streak in the nation — faces No. 2 seed Texas (29-6) on Sunday with a Final Four berth at stake. The Longhorns gave the Cardinal one of its three losses back in November.

Jones blushed and fanned her face as her teammates sung her praises Saturday at an Elite Eight news conference in the bowels of Spokane Arena. Anna Wilson pointed to the calming presence she brings to the game. Lacie Hull raved about her competitiveness. Lexie Hull mentioned how vocal Jones is, and Cameron Brink called her the best passer she has ever played with.

“Thanks for the impromptu love session,” Jones said with a laugh.

Analyst Debbie Antonelli, a former player at North Carolina State under legendary coach Kay Yow, describes her differently. She has watched her entire collegiate career — one that is yet to include a loss in a postseason game —and calls her “a basketball whisperer.”

“You know she’s having an impact, but it’s quiet. There’s nothing flamboyant,” Antonelli says, as opposed to more flamboyant stars like Aliyah Boston, Caitlyn Clark and Paige Bueckers. “It’s substance vs. style. It’s just so solid. It’s not mistake-free, but it’s very close. Nothing flashy.It’s not a behind-the-back or a pull-up logo three. She’s not getting a double-double every night, but she would be capable if that was her role.”

That’s who Jones has always been. She’s the one making music playlists for the team workout sessions — and listening to slow jams, including D’Angelo and Musiq Soulchild, pregame. She’s the one taking new teammates to go get coffee or to the beach or restaurants. Jones also actively encourages movie marathons and carpool karaoke.

Coach Tara VanDerveer remembered Jones getting teammates involved when they played water polo despite some barely being able to swim.

“She’s kind of for the underdog a lot,” VanDerveer said. “She takes, maybe, the 12th player under her wing. She’s like that. She’s really about making other people feel important. She’s a very compassionate person.”

Jones added, “I never put too much pressure on myself when it comes to basketball because it’s something that I do, but it’s not who I am.