The Stanford Cardinal won their first national championship in women’s basketball in 29 years, after defeating Arizona 54-53 in the 2021 NCAA Tournament Championship on Sunday at the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas.
Much like their semifinal win over South Carolina, Stanford alternated great play with their opponent, and they had to sweat out a buzzer-beater attempt to win, but they got the job done and Tara VanDerveer now has her third national title as Stanford head coach, in the year she became the all-time wins leader in NCAA women’s basketball.
After a nervous start for the first couple trips to either end, Lexie Hull got the first basket of the game for Stanford, before Aari McDonald buried a 3-pointer on the next possession for Arizona.
From there, Stanford poured it on to get a legit lead, with Hull, Cameron Brink, Ashten Prechtel and Kiana Williams all scoring early to make it 12-3 for the Cardinal. Arizona had a mini-rally to not let the game get out of hand in the opening minutes, but Stanford led 16-8 after the 1st quarter, in control but certainly not yet home free.
And so it proved, with the Wildcats scoring the first four points of the 2nd quarter and seeming to settle into the game. After trading baskets, Arizona took the lead midway through the 2nd quarter, at 21-20. A few minutes later, with Stanford holding a one-point lead, Prechtel and Lexie Hull had a give-and-go at the perimeter and Hull buried a 3-pointer while being fouled, and then hit the bonus free throw to make it a five-point game. That came during an 11-0 Cardinal run to give them another good cushion down the stretch.
Stanford led 31-24 at halftime, Lexie Hull leading the scorers with eight and Prechtel right behind with seven. The big thing for them was that McDonald struggled in the 1st half, managing just five points in the first 20 minutes.
The 3rd quarter continued in the same vein, with Stanford holding a solid but not-quite insurmountable lead. Both teams’ defense was on point and so many of the baskets that were falling were coming from deep, in transition or right at the rim.
Brink and Wilson hit some foul trouble early in the 3rd quarter, but Jones started to heat up, as she repeatedly hit her cuts to the basket and got easy baskets, even with Tara VanDerveer needing to change up her five on the floor to respond to the fouls.
Lexie Hull suffered an injury of some sort with about 4:00 left in the 3rd quarter and had to come out of the game, her status initially uncertain. Stanford slowly lost control of the game as the quarter wore down, with Arizona hitting their shots and Stanford going cold and picking up an uncharacteristic number of turnovers.
VanDerveer responded by bringing Lexie Hull, Brink and Wilson back and it seemed to help, although the end of the quarter was a mad dash. Stanford led 43-40 after three quarters, with the game nowhere near decided with 10 minutes left to play, Arizona having “won” the 2nd and 3rd quarters in terms of outscoring the Cardinal.
Stanford hit the first two baskets of the 4th quarter, taking their lead back up to seven points. Jones worked the low post and found all kinds of action. But Lexie Hull picked up her 4th foul and had to sit again.
McDonald scored an off-balance 3-pointer, but Brink hit a cut on the very next possession for a layup, to make it 51-44 with a little under six minutes to play. Brink then got a vital block on a McDonald drive, although Wilson was hurt in a collision on the play and went into the locker room.
Shaina Pellington provided a boost for Arizona in the 2nd half, the reserve guard hitting several key shots to keep the Wildcats within arm’s length of Stanford’s lead. A layup and free throw play made it 51-47 for Stanford for just under five minutes left. Then McDonald buried a 3-pointer and it was a one-point Cardinal lead.
Jones drew a foul on a drive that scored and got the and-1 to make it 54-50 with 2:20 to go in Stanford’s favor. Arizona turned it over on the next possession with no bucket, but Stanford then turned it over themselves. McDonald had a fast break, but Williams fouled her. That turned out to be smart, because McDonald missed one of her two free throws, so Stanford led by three points going into the final minute.
McDonald got another fast break, and the same thing happened again, only this time she got both free throws, to make it 54-53 with 36.6 seconds left to play.
Stanford wasted their next possession, running out the shot clock without even trying a shot, and had to rely on their defense to win them the title.
With 6.1 seconds left in the game and season, Arizona got the ball to McDonald, but she couldn’t get past the perimeter and Stanford wisely triple-teamed her with the clock winding down. McDonald chucked up a shot, but it was off the mark, and Stanford survived to win the game and the national title.
What a game, what an NCAA tournament, and what a season for the Stanford Cardinal. We knew they were a good team, but considering how wild the season was, this was an impressive accomplishment, indeed. Congrats to the Cardinal for the national title!