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2022 Pac-12 Women's Basketball Tournament

March 2-6 | Las Vegas, NV
Michelob ULTRA Arena

Michelle Smith: Cardinal caps unbeaten Pac-12 run with 15th conference tournament title

Mar 6, 2022

LAS VEGAS - Stanford’s defense of the NCAA championship begins now.

With a 73-48 win over No. 6 seed Utah — making its first title-game appearance — on Sunday at Michelob ULTRA Arena to capture the 2022 Pac-12 Tournament title (its 15th overall), the Cardinal (28-3) begins its six-game quest to become the first team to repeat as NCAA champions since Connecticut in 2016.

The Cardinal has, in reality, been building that defense through a stellar 2021-22 season that has included a current 20-game winning streak, an unbeaten run through the Pac-12 regular-season and tournament and another big milestone for legendary coach Tara VanDerveer.

But with another tournament title nailed down (Stanford is 15-4 all time in Pac-12 tournament title games) thanks to its depth, scoring options and lock-down defense, as well game-turning performances from Most Outstanding Player Haley Jones and All-Tournament selection Cameron Brink, the Cardinal can rest and wait for Selection Sunday. They know that they are one of the tournament’s top two seeds, that the road to another title begins at Maples Pavilion in the opening rounds, and that they will be regarded as one of the favorites to win it all again.

“We are going to have to work twice as hard because everybody is coming after us,” said Jones. “I think (the title defense) started as soon as we won last year, I don’t think it’s just starting now.”

Jones finished with 19 points, six rebounds and four assists. Brink added 16 points in 18 minutes and Lexie Hull pitched in 15 points, five rebounds and three assists in another game that showcased the Cardinal’s depth. Jones led the tournament in scoring with 56 points.

VanDerveer, now 53-6 all-time in the conference tournament, said she appreciated her team’s grit in this game and that it will serve them well with what’s still to come and the improvements that the Hall of Fame coach said still need to be made.

“What's real is just how they play for each other,” VanDerveer said. “I can go into the locker room and I can be totally honest with our team. Just, hey, I love them, but it's like parents, I don't give them candy. They hear some things that they don't want to hear. But they respond.”

With a first-ever run to the title game, Utah (20-11) has earned its first NCAA Tournament berth since 2011, just months before the Utes joined the Pac-12. They were just the second team in tournament history to face all three top seeds.

Senior guard Brynna Maxwell was the Utes’ long scorer in double figures with 16 points.

Utah’s players and coach Lynne Roberts sat in the postgame press conference and watched on the monitors as Stanford cut down the nets.

Dru Gylten said that watching Stanford celebrate didn’t add any fuel that isn’t already there.

“We weren’t cheering in the locker room after the game, like, ‘Oh my gosh, we made it.’ It was more sadness because we know we didn’t fully play to our potential and we have so much more to play for," Gylten said.

“I don’t need to watch that for it to burn a hole of motivation in me. I have that already," Roberts added. 

For the second game in a row, Utah cut into a double-digit deficit in the first half and went to the half down just 32-30 with the majority of Stanford’s starting lineup, including Jones, Brink and Lacie Hull, sitting with two fouls each. 

The Utes quickly tied the game at 32-32 after the half before Stanford went on a 15-4 run and turned up the defensive pressure to widen the lead in the third quarter.

From there, it was Stanford’s deep roster and inside play that ruled the day as the Cardinal went on a 15-4 run to open the fourth quarter and seal their 34th consecutive win over a Pac-12 opponent. Stanford has never lost a tournament game when holding opponents under 70 points.

Utah, the Pac-12’s highest scoring offense for much of the season, finished the game shooting 32.7 percent from the floor and 21.2 percent in the second half. 

“I think at the beginning we were playing a little more fearlessly,” Gylten said. “I think our mentality going in is that they had to stop us. That’s what we’ve been saying all season. So we were hitting 3s, getting those inside/outs. And we were getting defensive stops. I think after halftime we just missed the shots we usually take and then we kept turning it over. And that's just Stanford's, that's what they do best is make you pay for those. And that’s what kind of fell apart for us.”

But unlike other seasons when departing the Pac-12 Tournament meant the end of the road for Utah, there is more basketball to be played.

“It's not a season-ending loss, it’s just a tournament-ending loss,” Roberts said. “You can see it's like, okay, we're not done.”

Stanford, meanwhile, is headed back home knowing the target on their back will be very big over the next month. It’s part of the deal when you are the defending national champions.

“That target on our back all season has led to really competitive practices, competitive scrimmages, whatever it may be, being ultra competitive in games, being gritty,” Jones said. “I think we know what it takes to get there…So I think I'm excited. We're all really excited.”