SAN ANTONIO, Texas — Tara VanDerveer hugged each of her Stanford players as they climbed the ladder to cut down a piece of the net.
It took 29 years, but VanDerveer and the Cardinal are NCAA women’s basketball champions again.
Haley Jones scored 17 points and Stanford beat Arizona 54-53 on Sunday, giving the Cardinal and their Hall of Fame coach their first national championship in 29 years.
“Getting through all the things we got through, we’re excited to win the COVID championship,” VanDerveer said. “No one knows the score, no one knows who scored, it’s a national championship, and I’m really excited to represent Stanford. It’s a great team. We did not play a great game today, however. But if we can win not playing as well as we need to, I’m excited.”
It wasn’t a masterpiece by any stretch. Both teams struggled to score and missed easy layups and shots, but Stanford did just enough to pull off the win.
Stanford (31-2) built a nine-point lead in the fourth quarter before Arizona (21-6) cut it to 51-50 on star guard Aari McDonald’s 3-pointer.
After a timeout, Jones answered with a three-point play with 2:24 left. That was Stanford’s last basket of the game. McDonald got the Wildcats within 54-53 with 36.6 seconds left converting three of four free throws.
“I just owe it all to my teammates. They have confidence in me when I don’t have confidence in myself,” said Jones, who was honored as the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. “I saw they needed me to come up big, and I did.”
The Cardinal, after another timeout, couldn’t even get a shot off, giving Arizona one last chance with 6.1 seconds left. McDonald’s contested shot from the top of the key at the buzzer bounced off the rim.
“I got denied hard. I tried to turn the corner. They sent three at me. I took a tough, contested shot, and it didn’t fall,” said McDonald, who fell near midcourt, slumped while the Cardinal celebrated.
It’s been quite a journey for VanDerveer and the Cardinal this season. They were forced on the road for nearly 10 weeks because of the coronavirus, spending 86 days in hotels.
They didn’t complain and went about their business. Along the way, the Hall of Fame coach earned her 1,099th career victory to pass Pat Summitt for the most in women’s basketball history.
Now the 67-year-old coach has a third national title to go along with the ones she won in 1990 and 1992. That moved her into a tie with Baylor’s Kim Mulkey for third most all time behind UConn’s Geno Auriemma and Summitt, the late Tennessee legend.
It was the first women’s basketball championship for the Pac-12 since VanDerveer and Stanford won in 1992. The last time a team from the conference was in the title game was 2010, when the Cardinal lost to UConn. ,
Arizona has been building under coach Adia Barnes, who was the fourth Black woman to lead her team to the championship game, joining Carolyn Peck, Dawn Staley and C. Vivian Stringer. Peck and Staley won titles.
Barnes starred for the Wildcats as a player in the late 1990s and came back to her alma mater five years ago. She guided the team to the WNIT title in 2019 and led the Wildcats to their first NCAA title game. This was the team’s first appearance in the NCAA Tournament since 2005.
McDonald, who followed her coach from Washington as a transfer, has been a huge reason for the team’s success. The 5-foot-6 guard, who is lightning quick, is one of the rare two-way players in the game who can make an impact on both ends of the court.
She struggled against the Cardinal, finishing with 22 points while going 5-for-20 from the field.
––– By DOUG FEINBERG
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