Stanford Wins N.C.A.A. Women’s Basketball Title for First Time in 29 Years

The Four Percent

SAN ANTONIO — Stanford snapped a 29-year title drought to end a season that at points seemed uncertain to be completed during the coronavirus pandemic, claiming the N.C.A.A. women’s basketball championship with a tight win Sunday over Arizona, 54-53.

Stanford led for much of the game and started the fourth quarter up 3 points. But Arizona guard Aari McDonald, who had scored the most points by any player in the tournament before Sunday’s game, started beating Stanford’s defenses and closed Arizona’s deficit to 1 on a step-back jumper with 3 minutes, 35 seconds left.

Stanford’s Haley Jones, whose game-winning shot helped the Cardinal defeat top-seeded South Carolina in the Final Four and who led them with 17 points Sunday, added a free throw to offer the Cardinal a cushion, but McDonald was hot. She got closer with a free throw, then had a final opportunity after Stanford turned it over on a shot clock violation with less than 6 seconds left.

Her last-second jumper, a turnaround heave as she was swarmed by three Cardinal defenders, bounced off the back of the rim as time expired, delivering the Cardinal their third title in program history.

The battle between the teams that topped the Pac-12 Conference, then outlasted 62 others in the N.C.A.A. tournament, echoed the unusual circumstances of the tournament itself. Traditional powers like No. 1-seeded UConn and South Carolina and No. 2-seeded Baylor found themselves watching the title game from afar, and the field of 64 carried more teams that had a legitimate chance to win it all. They played against the backdrop of the public health crisis and questions about the stature of women’s basketball in an embattled college sports industry. But through it all, Stanford was considered one of the sport’s top teams and solidified that claim with its championship.

“We’re excited to win the Covid championship,” Stanford Coach Tara VanDerveer said in an interview on ESPN after the game.

The title game brought together Pac-12 rivals for the first time. It also featured one of the few Black coaches ever to reach the title game in a sport where more than 40 percent of players are Black. The tournament itself, a three-week bonanza running concurrently with the N.C.A.A. men’s tournament that was scheduled to conclude Monday night, became a forum for conversation about the inequities between men’s and women’s college sports.

It all played in front of a crowd that was equal parts cardboard cutouts and mask-wearing humans amid a pandemic that shuttered most large-scale in-person events over the last year.

“Playing in the Pac-12, we got better as they got better,” VanDerveer said in a postgame interview.

Stanford beat Arizona twice this season, winning by 27 points in January and by 14 to win the regular-season title. Through previous matchups and lessons learned from Arizona’s tournament run, Stanford determined the key to winning was to suppress McDonald, who led her team to the final by scoring 26 points against UConn in the national semifinals. This was her 93rd consecutive game with double-digit scoring, the longest active streak in women’s college basketball. Redshirt senior Anna Wilson, the younger sister of Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, and freshman Cameron Brink had her locked down for significant portions of the game.

McDonald, the Pac-12 player of the year, fought her way through Stanford’s defense to earn 22 points on 5 of 20 shooting from the field and 4 of 9 from 3-point range.

“Aari, hands down, no doubt, is the best player in Arizona’s history,” Arizona Coach Adia Barnes said in a postgame interview.

The matchup with Arizona marked the first time that two Pac-12 teams faced each other in the finals; out of six in-conference championships for the national title, three were between Southeastern Conference teams, two were within the Big East and one was in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

The last time the Cardinal played in the national championship — 2010 in the Alamodome, when it fell to UConn — was the last time that a Pac-12 team did as well. At that point, the league was still the Pac-10, and Stanford was largely the national face of it. Since welcoming the University of Utah and University of Colorado, Boulder, in 2011, Pac-12 teams emerged as a staple of the women’s Final Four with appearances by Oregon, Oregon State, Washington, the University of California, Berkeley and Stanford.

“It means that the Pac-12 is the best conference in the country,” Barnes said. “Start paying attention,” she added, “we have some of the best players in the country.”

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