Michelle Smith: Stanford survives South Carolina to advance to first national title game since 2010
Under the South Carolina basket, as All-American Aliyah Boston’s point-blank attempt hit back iron and bounced away, Stanford earned a ticket to place it has been wanting to go since this long, winding journey began back in November - the national championship game - after defeating South Carolina 66-65 in a thrilling national semifinal game at the Alamodome in San Antonio.
Kiana Williams, the hometown girl, stood on the court smiling widely as her teammates ran to her for the group hug. The exhale was collective and it was deep after a chaotic final 13 seconds that put the Cardinal on the razor’s edge of a very, very different set of emotions.
“That was survive and advance,” said Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer. “That was not a pretty game for us, credit to South Carolina...But we will have to learn from it and play better Sunday.”
Haley Jones had a different word for the feeling following Friday’s back-and-forth, drama-filled semifinal.
“It’s surreal,” said the sophomore forward, who starred for the Cardinal with 24 points, including what turned out to be the game-winner with 32 seconds to go on a broken play. “I don't think it's really hit me yet. I mean, everybody growing up, you wish to go to the national championship, play on the biggest stage, in front of the biggest crowd, against the best team. We know whoever comes out with a “W’ tonight is going to be great competition for us on Sunday. We're just kind of moving on. We're excited.”
Stanford in-bounded the ball with a one-point lead - thanks to the off-balance jumper by Jones - to freshman Cameron Brink, who lost the handle after being swamped by Gamecocks defenders, and turned it over to South Carolina’s Brea Beal, who drove straight to the basket and missed a layup. Boston, who had been a dominating inside presence throughout the game, even as she battled with foul trouble in the second half, followed up quickly, but her shot was too strong and bounced away, ending the game in dramatic fashion.
Jones was an island of peace in this game, calm, cool and collected as she finished with 24 points on 11 of 24 shooting, including a pair of 3-pointers. All of that despite sitting for all of the second quarter with two fouls. Jones talked about her team’s toughness and poise as a product of their well-chronicled journey together this season.
“I think just us being together, having confidence in each other,” Jones said. “If someone turns it over, I'm not going to not pass the ball next time. I have confidence and trust in them. I think that togetherness really bonds us.
“We just had great chemistry out there and I think it really shows in crunch time.”
VanDerveer has seen Jones mature this season. And she definitely saw it on Friday night when the player who was 1-for-9 from beyond the 3-point arc during the regular season hit two more 3-pointers at critical moments against South Carolina, bringing her NCAA total to five.
“Haley has been working really hard,” VanDerveer said. “I thought her practices have been very focused, she's been talking. She's really made a step-up. She knows it. She's not a freshman. She really was a leader out there. Obviously she has confidence. She plays with confidence.”
Stanford largely kept pace on the boards against a South Carolina team (outrebounded 40-36) that hadn’t been out-rebounded all season and got a critical 18-point, 13-rebound performance from junior Lexie Hull, six blocks from freshman center Cameron Brink and nine points and eight rebounds off the bench from Elite Eight hero Ashten Prechtel.
The Cardinal started slowly for the second game in a row, down 11-2 in the opening minutes before tying the game at the end of the first quarter, 15-15, and holding South Carolina without a field-goal for nine-minutes during a stretch bridging the first and second quarters. Stanford pushed out to a nine-point lead in the third quarter, but the final quarter was a nail-biter and nobody knows better than VanDerveer, named the Naismith Coach of the Year earlier in the day, that her team easily could have been the one’s going home disappointed. But they didn’t. And the Hall of Famer said her team will be ready on Sunday, no matter what.
“This is a team I have confidence in, confidence in themselves, really plays hard for each other,” VanDerveer said. “They were absolutely thrilled to be in the championship game. They know we did not play a great game tonight.”
Stanford (30-2) now gets its shot at the program’s first national championship in 29 years (since 1992). And it’s the Cardinal’s first trip to the title game since 2010 when they played, interestingly, at the Alamodome against Connecticut. Stanford didn’t win that game. Now they get a chance for a re-do.
“To be able to bring us back to this national championship stage is just an honor to be able to do that, for Tara, for the team, for the program,” Jones said. “We still got one more game, so we're excited to do what we can with that, hopefully come out with a dub. Yeah, just kind of leave our mark and the legacy.”