Heading into the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament National Championship Game on Sunday night at the Alamodome featured an all Pac-12 conference match-up between the Stanford Cardinals (31-2, 19-2 Pac-12) and Arizona Wildcats (21-6, 13-4 Pac-12). During the regular season, the Cardinals swept the season series against the Wildcats with an average margin of victory of 20 points.
Coming into the game, Stanford was the winner of 19 in a row, including a dramatic 66-65 victory over South Carolina in the Final Four. Meanwhile, Arizona on a roll, having won five straight, with all of them occurring in the tournament. The Wildcats pulled off a stunning 69-59 upset of number seed UConn in the Final Four.
A stifling Wildcats defense holding opponents to 19.7 points per game below the season average. Senior guard Aari McDonald on a tear the past three games averaging 30 points per game, 53 percent shooting from the field, and 56 percent from behind the arc.
Stanford wasted no time jumping out of the gate, a 10-0 run that led to a 12-3 advantage at the six-minute mark. Not letting up the Cardinals boosted the margin to 16-5 with three and half minutes remaining. By the time quarter ended, the Cardinals had led 16-8. Stanford was shooting 43 percent from the field compared to the Wildcats ice-cold 15 percent.
The Stanford offense hit a scoring drought in the second quarter without scoring a point for almost six minutes that allowed Arizona to close the gap to 18-17 with less than seven minutes left. The Wildcats offense heated up by going on a 16-4 run to keep within a single point.
The Cardinal able to stem the tide as junior guard Lexie Hull converted a four-point play after getting fouled in the process of canning a trifecta with less than three minutes to go. Stanford erupted for an 11-0 run to expand the lead to 31-21 with a minute and a half remaining. When both teams reached their respective locker rooms at halftime, the Cardinals were up 31-24.
Once the third quarter got underway, Stanford padded their lead to double figures 41-31 with less than six minutes left. The Cardinals held plus advantages in rebounds, second-chance points, and points in the paint. Clamping down defensively with a full-court press led to an Arizona 7-0 run. Once again, the Cardinals offense hit empty without a point for four minutes until sophomore guard Haley Jones ended the scoreless streak with a jump shot at the one-minute juncture.
Entering the fourth quarter up 43-40, the Cardinals went on a 6-0 run. Limited to four points in the first half, Haley Jones caught fire in the second half tallying 14 by the seven and half minute stage. On the flip side, Arizona junior guard Shaina Pellington was in the zone as well. Netting a total of 20 points in the last five games, Pellington poured in 15 points, including a three-point play on a lay-up that trimmed the deficit to 51-47 with less than five minutes left.
Struggling for most game scoring, Wildcats senior guard Aari McDonald burst out, scoring 14 points in the second half, including a triple that narrowed the lead down to 51-50 with three and half minutes remaining. Stanford, in desperate need of production, received that from Haley Jones. She stepped up in the clutch with an acrobatic flip-up shot that turned into a three-point play with two minutes in change to go.
Aari McDonald carrying the team on her back by knocking down a pair of free throws as the Wildcats drew to within 54-53 with 36.6 secs left. After a turnover by the Cardinals, Arizona called a timeout with six seconds left.
After some difficulty with the inbound pass, McDonald eventually got the ball, then dribbled to the top of the key and stepped back against a heavy double-team of Arizona players before releasing a high arching shot that clanged off the back of the rim as the buzzer sounded. Stanford players rushed the floor to celebrate the first national championship title since 1992 and third in program history.
Haley Jones totaled 17 points, while Lexie Hull and Cameron Brink each provided 10 points apiece. Aari McDonald finished with 22 points for Arizona.
Haley Jones on the national championship victory, “This program is what it is because of Tara (VanDerveer), the legacy that she’s created and just being able to be recruited by her.” “Now taking that next step further and win a national championship after the 29-year drought is just a blessing and surreal to be here now.” Many great players have passed through this program for the same reason, to be coached by the greatest and develop not only as a player, person, and young woman.”
Stanford Head Coach Tara VanDerveer on the national championship title and Haley Jones, “This game was not a pretty game, but it was gritty game.” “We had to dig in; they’re (Arizona Wildcats) very athletic, real quick and very fast, and at this level, sometimes they let a lot of physical play go.” We just had to toughen up, dig in, and I’m proud of our team for doing that. I think our grit and resilience helped us get the national championship.”
“Haley(Jones) had a season-ending injury last year; we didn’t have training in the spring or summer, so I think what she did is amazing and come back, and she was a go-to player down the stretch and no two ways; about it.” “When we wanted a basket, we went to Haley, and she delivered.” I think you see with Haley is the tip of the iceberg, and I respect what she’s done through this season and changed in practice. She gets serious in practice; she’s talking, an intelligent player, so I’m excited about her upside, and I’m very happy for her to win the MVP.”