Michelle Smith: Stanford's season ends with loss to UConn in the Final Four
MINNEAPOLIS - Stanford won’t have the chance to defend its national title. Anna WIlson, Lexie and Lacie Hull won’t get a chance to extend the sisterhood for one more game. A season of success and then more success, with trophies and accolades, ends not with a celebration, but a disappointing walk off the court at the Target Center in Minneapolis as Connecticut eliminated the Cardinal 63-58 in the Final Four on Friday night.
The ending was abrupt, almost as jarring as watching Stanford struggle offensively for the entire game. One of the most efficient scoring teams in the country all season, the Cardinal went cold at the worst possible time against a Connecticut team that found a way to persevere through foul trouble, the obvious lingering injury issues of its star player and a furious Stanford run at the finish to try and steal a win in a game that they trailed nearly the entire way.
Stanford (32-4) made just 34.8 percent of its shots from the floor, and just 17.4 percent from beyond the 3-point line. But it wasn’t just the percentages. They made 23 field goals. Three of their four 3-pointers came in the final quarter. And they were out-rebounded 46-37 despite the fact that the Huskies had two post players in foul trouble early.
"We did not play very well tonight, and we just -- I think we really struggled running our offense,” said Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer. “I think there were some self-inflicted wounds, what we were doing out there, and it was disappointing.”
Haley Jones finished with her third straight double-double, with 20 points and 11 rebounds. But she needed more help. Cameron Brink was the only other player in double figures with 15 points in 27 minutes, but the sophomore also fought through foul trouble, which limited her time on the floor.
It was a particularly tough night for Stanford’s senior trio of Wilson and the Hull sisters, whose hustle and heart helped to bring the Cardinal to this point to begin with.
They finished a combined 3-for-17.
“I don’t think one game will define what Lexie and Lacie and Anna have meant to this program,” VanDerveer said, addressing Lexie’s struggles specifically. Lexie Hull was 2-of-12 from the floor and 0-for-4 from beyond the arc. “She did miss some shots tonight. But she battled and I wouldn’t trade her for anyone.”
Jones said it’s difficult to reconcile how the Cardinal played on Friday night with the kind of season they had.
“You can't make all of your shots. I think we could have moved the ball better,” Jones said. “I think we could have cut harder, screened better, whatever it may be. But I think we left a lot out there unsaid, and so that's hard to swallow that pill where you leave the game feeling like as a team you didn't leave your best out there.”
Huskies sophomore Paige Bueckers, the national player of the year last season, finished with 14 points and was clearly hurting as she has played through recovering from the knee injury that cost her 19 games this season.
Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma acknowledged that his team won on a night that the opponent was at less than its best. Some of it was the Huskies defense, and some of it was catching a very good team on an uncharacteristically off night.
“Sometimes you don’t have to be the best team to win, you have to play the best that night,” said Auriemma, who is 5-2 against Stanford in the NCAA Tournament and 5-1 in the Final Four. “Sometimes you’ve got to make something out of very little.”
The Cardinal, which led for only 1:07 during the entire game, certainly tried.
Stanford was within 27-26 at halftime and 39-37 at the start of the fourth quarter. But after watching Connecticut go up 49-41 with 5:38 to go, the scramble to pull out a win was on.
Stanford pulled within 58-56 with 2:44 to go on a drive by Jones. And 60-58 on an inside score by Brink with 18.4 seconds to go.
Stanford’s efforts to foul, stop the clock and keep their hopes alive were made tougher by the fact that the Huskies went 15-for-17 from the free-throw line in the fourth quarter.
“I'm really proud of the resiliency that this team has shown, especially in tonight's game. We're down eight with like a minute left and we get it to two,” Jones said. “Even though when they're making their free throws and whatnot, we're executing out of timeouts, we're diving on the ground, we're sprinting, we're doing everything that we can possible and continuing to encourage each other.”
But Stanford ran out of time and opportunities.
With 11.0 seconds to go, the Cardinal tried to in-bound the ball and get it to Ashten Prechtel, who missed her 3-point attempt wide, leaving Stanford to soak in the reality that the season is over.
Fran Belibi said the locker room was a mix of tears and hugs. And, as always, a sisterhood.
“We've been able to play with some people for three, four years…Yeah, it's some tears, but I think at the end of the day, we're thinking back on what we've been able to do here. We've been national champs, we were Pac-12 champs twice over, so we're going to try to carry that and keep with the joy over all the sadness.”
The Cardinal will return Jones, who will again be a national player of the year candidate, along with Brink, Belibi, Prechtel and Hannah Jump, and will welcome in the nation’s top recruit in 6-foot-7 Lauren Betts. But all of that is a plan for another day in the not too distant future.
“You're closing a chapter with some people, but you're opening a new one, which it's exciting to see,” Jones said.