It wasn’t pretty, said coach Tara VanDerveer — but it was gritty. And that grittiness, combined with Stanford’s tremendous depth, ruled the women’s NCAA title game Sunday night.
In a game of runs, lockdown defense and turnovers, Stanford came out on top, 54-53.
Arizona’s Aari McDonald, who became the new darling of women’s basketball throughout the Wildcats’ run, missed a heave at the buzzer that would have won it.
In the final minute, McDonald hit 3-of-4 free throws to bring Arizona within one, 54-53. After a timeout, Stanford inexplicably turned it over on a shot clock violation, seemingly unaware of the dwindling time. That gave Arizona, and McDonald, a chance.
Arizona called a timeout to advance the ball and inbounded to McDonald, whom Arizona rode all tournament. But Stanford trapped her, and McDonald couldn’t find space to get a clean look. Surrounded by three Stanford players, her contested, falling-away 3-pointer bounced long as she fell to the court, exhausted and heartbroken.
Stanford won its first national championship since 1992, the third of VanDerveer’s career.
“You know Tara and (assistant coach) Kate (Paye) always say, ‘No more nice girls from Stanford,’ and I think we proved that tonight with so much grittiness,” said Stanford point-forward Haley Jones, the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player.
“We had to dig in,” she said. “I’m really proud of our team for doing that. Grit and resilience helped us cut the nets.”
Depth was the difference. The Cardinal, the deepest team in women’s college basketball this season, got big contributions from each of its starters — everyone scored at least five points and grabbed at least two rebounds — led by Jones’ 17. Jones also grabbed eight rebounds.
Senior guard Lexie Hull had 10 points, 10 rebounds, and freshman forward Cameron Brink 10 points, four rebounds. And Ashten Prechtel, who was huge for Stanford this tournament, came off the bench to score seven points and grab eight rebounds. Stanford played 11 players.
“We really hang our hats on relying on each other,” said senior guard Kiana Williams, a San Antonio native who struggled in the Final Four but knew her teammates could cover for her.
Another major storyline was rebounding, where Stanford dominated 47-29. It also turned nine offensive boards into 11 second-chance points, which kept Stanford in front; Arizona, by comparison, had no second-chance points. That stat was especially helpful to the Cardinal in the first half, when it gave the ball away 10 times.
And even as the Cardinal continued to give the ball away — Stanford finished with 21 — Arizona never capitalized, scoring just 12 points off those turnovers.
“We were taking some quick shots, taking some forced shots, but those shots had been falling prior to this game, they just didn’t fall today,” said Arizona coach Adia Barnes. “Against a team like Stanford, we have to be better at the small things. It never comes down to the last shot. It’s never about the last play, but it obviously stings pretty bad.”
Part of that had to do with how tough Stanford was on McDonald, a theme this season in Pac-12 play.
In two previous games against Stanford this season, McDonald had combined to shoot 11 of 42 from the field and 1 of 12 from three. She continued to struggle Sunday, shooting 5 of 20 and 4 of 9 from three.
But she willed Arizona back into the game in the fourth quarter to give the Wildcats a chance, sparking a 7-0 run and hitting a three with 3:35 left to bring Arizona within one, 51-50. But her jump shot on the next possession — which would have given Arizona its first lead of the second half — was off.
Arizona shot 29% (17 of 59) for the game. No other Wildcat starter scored in double figures, though Shaina Pellington came off the bench to score 15 points and grab seven rebounds.
McDonald was hounded all night, mostly by Stanford’s Anna Wilson (McDonald and Wilson were co-defensive players of the year in the conference) and Hull. VanDerveer praised Wilson after the game, saying that while McDonald scored 22, “she had to work very hard to get those.”
Asked about Stanford’s turnovers, VanDeerveer quipped, “That will give us something to work on in the spring.”
It was the first ever meeting of Pac-12 teams in the national championship game.
Follow reporter Lindsay Schnell on Twitter @LindsaySchnell