Michelle Smith: Cardinal crowned champions
The 2020-21 NCAA women’s basketball season - shrouded in uncertainty before it even started - was fittingly, appropriately, dramatically uncertain until its very last moments.
Arizona in-bounded the ball with 6.1 seconds left, down by one-point to Pac-12 conference rival Stanford, the ball - to no one’s surprise - going to superstar guard Aari McDonald. McDonald was immediately swarmed by three Stanford defenders and she was forced to put up a contested shot in front of the long arms of Cameron Brink and Lexie Hull that would not fall, vaulting Stanford to a 54-53 win and the program’s third national championship and the first since 1992.
It was a gritty and not terribly pretty performance from the Cardinal (31-2), who survived this game with the same toughness that it survived this COVID season of test and trial, one in which they spent more than two months away from their home court and campus during the heart of the season and another three weeks in San Antonio, locked down and laying the foundations for a championship run.
“Everything we’ve been through, it feels like it was worth it,” said Stanford senior Kiana Williams. “Everything just lined up. Feels like it was written.”
Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer, the Hall of Famer and the winningest coach in NCAA women’s basketball history, stood at the net Sunday night at the Alamodome and hugged every player and staff member as they ascended the ladder to cut out their piece of a championship.
The 29-year gap between titles for VanDerveer is the largest in Division I collegiate athletics. And VanDerveer demurred when asked about what it meant to close the circle with a title after nearly three decades.
“This isn’t why I coach,” VanDerveer said. “I want to be a teacher and each year is a great year, and I enjoy working with all of our players.”
Then she promptly gave credit to Arizona and thanks to the conference for which she has set the standard excellence and longevity.
“I’m really excited to take the trophy back to the Pac-12, and also I want to thank the Pac-12 coaches, and every university in the Pac-12, the Pac-12 network, for the commitment to women’s basketball. The great coaches we have in our league got us ready for this moment. This was a tough tournament.”
The Cardinal’s depth, size and experience barely won out against an aggressive Arizona defense. Stanford turned the ball over a season-high 21 times, but Arizona would only convert those into 12 points. They out-rebounded the Wildcats by 20 and held Arizona to 28.8 percent shooting and still the game went down to the wire.
Meanwhile, Arizona’s transcendent guard McDonald finished with 22 points and while the Cardinal held her back early and then on that final shot.
The last three games of the NCAA tournament saw Stanford battle back from a big first-half deficit against Louisville in the Sweet 16, to survive a last-shot at the basket from South Carolina in the semifinals, and then have it happen again in Sunday’s title game.
It was a series of gut-checks and Stanford responded every time, particularly in the title game, when Arizona kept cutting back into Stanford leads until they pulled within one-point on the free-throw by McDonald.
“I never doubted this team for one minute,” said senior Kiana Williams. “The last three games were dogfights and we came out on top because we wanted it more.”
Jones, who led Stanford with 17 points and eight rebounds and was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, said the moment hadn’t hit her yet.
“Even standing here with the confetti, I’m just still waiting for it to kick in,” Jones said. “So many great players have passed through this program. They have all come for the same reason that we have, to be coached by the greatest and to develop, not only as a player, but as a person, a young woman. So I think this is just an honor to be able to do this for her and with her.”
Hull and Brink added 10 points each. Hull finished with 10 rebounds.
VanDerveer said there was a little something else working for the Cardinal as well. Luck.
“We had some special karma going for us. When we dodged the bullet against Louisville, dodged a bullet against South Carolina and dodged a bullet against Arizona. I think sometimes you’ve just got to be lucky. I will admit it, we were very fortunate to win.”
Williams told a story after her final game in a Stanford uniform.
“Tara is probably going to get mad at me for telling this. In September, after four days (after testing), we got in trouble for breaking quarantine. We went to play pickup at an outside gym,” Williams said. “When she found out she was heartbroken and really disappointed in us. The seniors decided that the only way to make it up for her was to win a national championship and I’m so happy we were able to do that for her.”
VanDerveer said this title might have an asterisk, in a good way.
“This is the time we live in. For me, as a coach, you want to win a national championship. We have had shots at it. I’ve had heartbreak with teams that had great shots at winning it, but this team won and I’m so proud of them because we might call it the COVID championship. It was tougher being down here.”
Jones said the season has been “chaotic”. But that brought the Cardinal closer together and that helped them finish the job.
“I think it just shows that we’re going to tough it out, we’re going to stick with it, we’re resilient and we’re gritty,” Jones said. “I think we learned so much from the tough journey we were on this year. We came into this season saying that we wanted to win a natty. And in all the adversity, we stuck with it.”
In the end, VanDerveer said she feels like the Cardinal won this title “for all the great players that have played at Stanford.”
“I know that these women are kind of on the shoulders of those women. Former players would be so proud to be part of this team because of the resilience they've shown, because of the sisterhood that they represent. I'm just thrilled for this team, but also for all the women out there that played at Stanford.”