How Stanford's road warriors conquered 2021

And the future is bright in the desert for Arizona

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SAN ANTONIO, TX - APRIL 4: Stanford Cardinal players celebrate with the trophy after their win over the Arizona Wildcats in the championship game of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament at Alamodome on April 4, 2021 in San Antonio, Texas. (Photo by Ben Solomon/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

After a journey that included nearly 10 weeks on the road because of the coronavirus, the Stanford women are national champions for the first time in 29 years after edging out Arizona 54-53 Sunday.

The Cardinal had a much better start than it had in its previous two games, and that momentum carried them through the entire 40 minutes. It wasn’t exactly pretty, though, with both teams struggling to score and missing easy layups and shots. 

On top of that, Stanford was somehow able to survive over 20 turnovers, thanks to offensive efforts across the bench.

Stanford effectively shut down Aari McDonald — it seemed like there were always at least two people on her at a time -- and though Arizona’s ability to turn defense into offense was still sharp, it didn’t cut quite deep enough.

Jones drives it home

This story begins and ends with Haley Jones, who was honored as the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.

She was Stanford’s best player throughout the tournament, averaging 14.1 points, 6.3 rebounds and 3.1 assists, while shooting 60 percent from the field. Whenever it seemed like her team was slowing down, Jones was there to pick them right back up.

Jones has been crucial for Stanford down the stretch, and that didn’t change Sunday. She led her team with 17 points and her energy on the court pushed the Cardinal across the finish line. She also hauled in 8 rebounds and swatted away one Wildcat shot.

Stanford had built a nine-point lead in the fourth quarter before Arizona cut it to 51-50 on Aari McDonald’s three. After a timeout, Jones answered with a three-point play with less than three minutes of game time on the clock. These were Stanford’s last points of the game, pushing the score to 54-50.

McDonald then got the Wildcats within just one point with about 40 seconds left, and later the ball was in her hands once again with six seconds left to make one last push for the win. McDonald zigged and zagged her way along the arc and got a shot up just before the buzzer, but it bounced off the rim and was no good.

“I just owe it all to my teammates, they have confidence in me when I don’t have confidence in myself,” Jones said after the game. “I saw they needed me to come up big and I did.”

SAN ANTONIO, TX - APRIL 4: Haley Jones #30 of the Stanford Cardinal drives to the basket against Sam Thomas #14 of the Arizona Wildcats during the championship game of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament at Alamodome on April 4, 2021 in San Antonio, Texas. (Photo by Ben Solomon/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

When those final six seconds came around, VanDerveer pulled her team together for one last huddle. Here’s what she said, in Jones’ words.

“It was just to lock in … This is the last six seconds you have as a team, so you want to leave it all out there on the line. We knew whose hands the ball was going to be in, who was going to take the last shot. We had to lock in and focus, communicate.”

And lock in they did. In signature fashion, Stanford refused to go home empty-handed and did what they had to do to get that elusive title.

Hindsight is 20-20, Tara VanDerveer is 2021

What a special season for Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer. Our Alex Simon has a whole piece on this incredible coach that’s definitely worth a read, but I can’t not talk about her for at least a few paragraphs here.

Along the way to the national championship, the Hall of Fame coach earned her 1,099th career victory to pass Pat Summitt for the most in women’s basketball history. Sunday’s victory marked her third NCAA crown with Stanford.

But her impact stretches far beyond her home court. She’s not only built up a legendary program, but she works to help other players and coaches around the NCAA grow as well.

“To be at the same school for so many years and have sustained success shows what a phenomenal coach she is,” Arizona head coach Adia Barnes said after the game. “I’m happy for Tara, I think she’s amazing … She’s always giving me advice and constructive criticism. She’s always cheering for me. Unfortunately for us, she’s going to be coaching for a lot longer.”

VanDerveer even made it clear after the game that she wished to send Aari McDonald a graduation gift and praised the young star highly.

Stanford senior Kiana Williams also shared a funny story about her coach after the game. Back in September, the team got in trouble for breaking quarantine — they’d ventured to an off-campus gym to play pickup. Williams said when VanDerveer found out about the team’s little jaunt, she was heartbroken and disappointed.

Naturally, Williams and her teammates felt the only way to make it up to her was to win a national championship for her. And here we are.

It just goes to show the special connection between VanDerveer and her players. She’s truly fostered something special at Stanford and beyond.

“This program is what it is because of Tara,” Jones said. “The legacy she's created, just being able to be recruited by her, now be a part of the team, and then to take that a step further and win a national championship after the 29-year-long drought.”

A bright future in the desert

Okay, so Stanford is pretty good. We know this. But luckily, women’s basketball fans were blessed with a good game Sunday, even if it was a little sloppy. It was a close, back and forth battle, with the players on both sides leaving it all out on the court.

Arizona was right there in it. They were within one basket of a national championship. One. No one even thought they’d be in this game and they were just one good possession away from winning it all.

The Wildcats blew everyone’s expectations about them out of the water over the last few weeks. They were underestimated and snubbed. After UConn’s loss to Arizona, Christyn Williams even said the Huskies had “thought the game would be easy.”

As if Arizona had made it to the Final Four on sheer luck alone. If that’s not disrespect, I don’t know what is.

But the Wildcats flipped the script and proved they belonged with the big dogs in this tournament. They weren’t afraid, they weren’t rattled and they didn’t back down.

And now the whole country knows who Aari McDonald is, who Trinity Baptiste is, who Sam Thomas is. Sure, they didn’t quite go all the way this year, but this program is peaking and will be a force for years to come.

“We’re leaving San Antonio with a lot of pride,” Aari McDonald said after the game. “We have nothing to hang our heads for, we competed and we battled. Look how far we’ve come.”

SAN ANTONIO, TX - APRIL 4: Aari McDonald #2 of the Arizona Wildcats drives the baseline against Anna Wilson #3 of the Stanford Cardinal during the championship game of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament at Alamodome on April 4, 2021 in San Antonio, Texas. (Photo by Ben Solomon/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

This is all new for Arizona, a program that wasn’t on anybody’s radar coming into this tournament. Now, everyone is watching them. Fans fell in love with Aari’s speed and ferocity and with the Wildcats’ uncanny ability to turn defense into offense.

Barnes is working hard to make sure there’s a bright future in the desert.

“This is uncharted territory for the Wildcats,” said Barnes after the game. “The bar is high, we want to come back here. I’m trying to build a program like Tara [VanDerveer], or Geno [Auriemma], or Dawn [Staley] … I think in the future Arizona will be back.”

Watch out for the Wildcats next year — they’re hungry.