Michelle Smith: Arizona and Stanford the last two women's basketball teams standing
The past, as far as both Stanford and Arizona are concerned is history.
The history to be made, however, is very much in the present.
The two best teams in the Pac-12 this season turned out to be the two best teams in the country and will clash for the third time this season, this time with the NCAA Championship on the line. And regardless of the outcome, a Pac-12 team will bring home the NCAA women’s basketball title for the first time since 1992.
“It’s a dream come true for us in the Pac-12,” said Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer. “For so long, the conference has not gotten the respect it deserves.”
Since the last time that Stanford played in the national title game in 2010 in San Antonio, the Pac-10 became the Pac-12. And it has sent six teams to the Final Four during that span - Cal, Stanford, Oregon State, Washington, Oregon and now the Wildcats. An all Pac-12 title game is an affirmation of what Arizona coach Adia Barnes said she already knew.
“It means a lot. We have been saying all along that this is the best conference in the country and our teams have had tremendous success in the tournament every year, but this speaks for itself,” Barnes said.
Now there is the not-so-small matter of playing the biggest game on the biggest stage against a very familiar opponent.
In two meetings this season, the first way back on January 1 and the second on February 22, the Cardinal came away with a pair of wins by a combined margin of 41 points.
But aside from the reality that beating a team three times in the season is a very tall task, the other reality is that both teams are different in April than they were even a few weeks ago. Neither of these coaches are expecting anything other than a knock-down-drag-out battle to the championship trophy.
“They’ve improved a lot and we’ve improved a lot and we will see who has improved more,” said Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer. “I think Arizona and Aari (McDonald) have really elevated their game. Adia has done a great job and they are not a one-trick pony. They have really talented players, there are great, great players all around her and they are all playing really well.”
Barnes said there are pros and cons to playing such a familiar opponent in a game of this magnitude.
“We know what to prepare for and they know what to prepare for,” Barnes said. “Sometimes it's easier when you don’t know a team because you can just go out and play. But I think what’s on our side is that it’s hard to beat a team three times. We are different, we are a lot better, but so is Stanford. But I think we are shooting better and defending better and playing better basketball. I also think it’s hard to prepare for momentum and a team getting hot and we are pretty hot right now.”
Let’s get to the five big questions that lead to a national championship:
Can Arizona bottle up enough scorers? Arizona is holding teams to 52.2 points in the tournament so far. Meanwhile, Stanford has been led in scoring by four different players in five NCAA Tournament games so far. This time it could be Kiana Williams, playing in her final collegiate game, it could be Haley Jones, who has discovered her 3-point shot in this tournament, it could be someone off the bench like Ashten Prechtel. The Wildcats were able to limit Connecticut scorers - Paige Bueckers and Christyn WIlliams and Evina Westbrook accounted for all but 11 of the Huskies points in the game - and be disruptive to the Huskies’ offensive flow with sustained pressure. Stanford has gutted out two wins in Louisville and South Carolina who have tried to do the same thing even without the free-flowing offense that has been their calling card all season.
Will Stanford be able to shut down Aari McDonald? McDonald has been the best scorer in the NCAA Tournament, averaging 23.4 points a game and 30 points a game over the last three games. In their two previous games this season, McDonald was 3-for-18 and 8 for 24 from the floor. Stanford senior guard Anna Wilson’s role in this game is going to be huge and it will be the biggest defensive assignment of her career because McDonald’s offensive game has elevated since the regular season. Wilson struggled to guard South Carolina’s Zia Cooke on Friday but has done well enough twice against McDonald to help her team to a win. Can she, and the Cardinal, solve the puzzle for a third time in the same season?
Can the Wildcats hold a bigger Stanford team off the boards? The Cardinal will bring Cameron Brink and Fran Belibi and Ashten Prechtel into the paint. Lexie Hull pulled down 13 rebounds against South Carolina. And Stanford grabbed a total of 17 offensive boards leading to additional possessions and 24 second-chance points, the kind of stat that can decide a game. The Wildcats, whose rebounding margin for the tournament is a -2, are going to need to crash the glass from every position, including the backcourt to keep Stanford from both scoring and running in transition. Six-foot forward Trinity Baptiste is Arizona’s leading rebounder at 6.2 rebounds a game. Lauren Ware, at 6-foot-5, may have an outsized role in this game.
Will Arizona be able to continue to shoot well from the perimeter? In the previous two games, the Wildcats shot 25.8 percent and 30.9 percent from the floor against Stanford, and shot a combined 11-46 from beyond the 3-point arc. As good as Arizona’s defense will be, their offense is going to have to perhaps be better. But the fact that the Wildcats put up 74 points against Texas A&M in the second round, a team that’s well-known for its defense, is a good sign. Stanford’s length, however, makes things challenging and going inside against a shot-blocker like Cameron Brink - who had six blocks against South Carolina Friday night - is a choice that carries its own risks.
Who will make the hustle play that decides this game? For Arizona, it’s hard not to imagine that it will be McDonald with the big steal and layup that could put a away a game, meanwhile, for Stanford the most likely candidate is Lexie Hull, who has made so many hustle plays during this tournament and has proven herself to be Stanford’s glue player.