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SAN ANTONIO — After a 29-year wait, the Stanford women’s basketball team still had to sweat through 6.1 pressure-packed seconds to claim its third national championship.
The Cardinal got it, holding off Arizona 54-53 when star guard Aari McDonald missed a shot just before the buzzer. Coach Tara VanDerveer couldn’t exhale until that moment. The No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA women’s basketball tournament, Stanford leaves the Alamodome as champion, but Arizona leaves as an underdog team that captured the country’s imagination and almost the program’s first NCAA title.
It wasn’t a masterpiece by any stretch with both teams struggling to score and missing easy layups and shots, but Stanford did just enough to pull off the win.
“Getting through all the things we got through, we’re excited to win the COVID championship,” VanDerveer said. ”The other one was not quite as close, the last one. But we’re really excited. No one knows the score, no one knows who scored, it’s a national championship.”
Haley Jones scored 17 points to lead the Cardinal and was honored as the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.
“I just owe it all to my teammates, they have confidence in me when I don’t have confidence in myself,” said Jones. “I saw they needed me to come up big and I did.”
VanDerveer and Stanford last won it all in 1992. The 29-year gap between NCAA titles is the longest for any Division I coach in any sport.
Stanford got off to a 12-3 start Sunday, forcing a timeout from Arizona, and the Cardinal led 16-8 after the first quarter. The Wildcats, who lost their two regular-season games to Stanford by 27 and 14 points, came back to take a brief second-quarter lead, but Stanford went up 31-24 at the break.
The rest of the game was close, as Arizona kept forcing Stanford turnovers and refused to back down. The Wildcats shot just 28.8% from the field, but still took the game to the buzzer. McDonald finished a brilliant tournament with 22 points, but was 5-of-20 from the field Sunday. Her contested shot from the top of the key at the buzzer bounced off the rim.
“I got denied hard. I tried to turn the corner, they sent three at me. I took a tough, contested shot and it didn’t fall,” said McDonald.
The Wildcats were trying to be only the fourth team to trail by double digits and win a championship.
It’s been quite a journey for VanDerveer and the Cardinal this season. The team was forced on the road for nearly 10 weeks because of COVID-19 regulations in Santa Clara County, spending 86 days in hotels during this nomadic season. It prepared the Cardinal for the past three weeks in the NCAA tournament bubble in San Antonio. Along the way the Hall of Fame coach earned her 1,099th career victory to pass Pat Summitt for the most all time in women’s basketball history.
Now the 67-year-old coach has a third national title to go along with the ones she won in 1990 and 1992. That moved her into a tie with Baylor’s Kim Mulkey for third most all time behind UConn’s Geno Auriemma and Summitt.
Auriemma’s Huskies defeated Stanford the last time the Cardinal were in the NCAA title game, in 2010. He has 11 national championships and is second to VanDerveer in career victories.
“It’s truly amazing when you think of what it takes to put yourself in position to win a championship in four decades,” Auriemma recently said of VanDerveer. “Her consistency is remarkable, and I admire how well she has handled all that goes with it.”
No other Division I coach has gone more than 20 years between titles. In basketball, the longest gap is 17 years for both the women (Muffet McGraw, 2001 and 2018 at Notre Dame) and men (Rick Pitino, 1996 at Kentucky and 2013 at Louisville, although that title was later vacated).
Stanford went to the inaugural NCAA tournament in 1982 under coach Dottie McCrae. VanDerveer took over the Cardinal for the 1985-86 season, and made her first NCAA tournament in 1988. Stanford has made the NCAA field every year since.
Stanford went to the Women’s Final Four in 1990 (won), ’91 and ’92 (won). But between that last title and Sunday’s championship, the Cardinal had 10 other trips to the Final Four, all of which ended without the trophy.
That included semifinal losses in 1995, ’96 and ’97, although VanDerveer wasn’t with the 1996 team because she had taken that season away from Stanford to coach the U.S. national team in preparation for the 1996 Olympics. That Olympic team started a streak of six consecutive gold medals for the U.S. women heading into this summer’s postponed Tokyo Games. The success of the Americans also contributed to the launch of two U.S.-based pro leagues. Of the two, the WNBA has endured and celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2021.
Sunday marked the seventh time teams from the same conference have met in the women’s championship game. VanDerveer is now 65-11 all time against Arizona.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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