It was worth the wait. Twenty-nine years after winning its last NCAA title, Stanford is a national champion again. The Cardinal held off Arizona 54-53 on Sunday in San Antonio, with Wildcats star guard Aari McDonald missing a shot just before the buzzer.
The No. 1 overall seed in the 2021 NCAA women's basketball tournament, Stanford and coach Tara VanDerveer won their third championship, adding to the program's titles in 1990 and 1992. The 29-year gap is the longest for any Division I coach in any sport.
McDonald gutted out 22 points and was harassed all night by Stanford's defense. But despite trailing by as many as 11 points in each half, the Wildcats still had a chance to win it.
So how did Stanford clinch the title, and in doing so beat Arizona for third time this season? How did the Cardinal, who were displaced by enhanced COVID-19 guidelines and forced on a nine-week road trip through six different states, end up as the last team standing after the most unique season in college basketball history? Our ESPN.com panel of Andrea Adelson, Charlie Creme and Mechelle Voepel goes inside the Cardinal's win, and takes a quick look at what to expect in 2021-22.
Stanford's depth was a big part of its championship run, but how big was sophomore Haley Jones in San Antonio? She was the No. 1 recruit in the Class of 2019, but a knee injury derailed her freshman campaign just 18 games into last season. Now she's the Final Four Most Outstanding Player.
Voepel: There have been a multitude of Stanford greats, but three have won the Most Outstanding Player award at the women's Final Four: Jennifer Azzi in 1990, Molly Goodenbour in 1992 and now Jones. Azzi was a cornerstone recruit for the program, just as Jones is for this particular era of Stanford basketball.
The Final Four is where legends are either made or fade, and Jones had some unforgettable moments here in the Alamodome, including her jump shot with 32 seconds left that proved to be the winning points in Friday's semifinal.
Jones is from Santa Cruz, California, about an hour south of Stanford, and she arrived there with great expectations. She had a good freshman year before getting hurt, but then faced uncertainty. The coronavirus pandemic cut the season short and forced her home when she should have been on campus for physical therapy and rehab.
"It was heartbreaking. I'd never been injured like that before," Jones said. "It was very difficult. I think a lot of my confidence just came from working back to the basics. The Steph Curry ball-dribbling drill we did at practice, I did it every day at home. I was dribbling in my garage with my mom, just doing the little stuff to find the love for my game again.
"When you get injured, it's hard. You lose faith; why am I doing this? Where is the motivation coming from? Doing little things with the people that I love around me just kind of helped me get a passion for the game again, and my confidence kind of came from there."
Adelson: I admit, midway through the fourth quarter I had no idea who would win Most Outstanding Player. Somebody had to step up, and it was clear Jones needed to be that person for Stanford. Once she got into foul trouble in the first half, Stanford was not nearly as effective on offense, allowing Arizona back into the game.
And when Arizona came back in the fourth quarter, it seemed obvious that Jones was the only player the Cardinal could turn to in an effort to save the day. Arizona coach Adia Barnes spoke at length about why Jones is so effective -- because she's so good close to the basket. And when Arizona gave her some room to make a few shots, she did.
"I didn't have the best first half, I got in foul trouble, which hurt me, the team," Jones said. "In the second half, I had to get back. Alyssa [Jerome] was telling me, 'This is your half, this is all you, this is your time.' Down the stretch, I just knew if the ball came to me, I knew I had to shoot it. I had confidence in myself to make those shots."
Creme: Some sentiment existed for McDonald to win the MOP award despite Arizona coming up short, but Jones certainly deserved the honor. Stanford is not a national champion without her. In fact, the Cardinal aren't even playing for the title without Jones. Her performance against South Carolina in the semifinals was just as important. Stanford became the first team to win a championship with two one-point wins in the Final Four. It's no coincidence that Jones scored the final Stanford points in both those games.
The 6-foot-1 sophomore scored 24 and 17 points, respectively, in the two games, each team highs. Jones also did it with an efficient 19-of-28 from the field. When a shot needed to be made, VanDerveer made sure Jones had an opportunity. Late in the title game against Arizona, Jones also became the chief ball handler in the backcourt against Arizona's pressure.
VanDerveer used 11 players in the championship game, but senior Kiana Williams (five points, six turnovers) was not herself, leaving Jones as the only Stanford player who could create her own shot. She did that three times in the fourth quarter, scoring seven of Stanford's 11 points in the final 10 minutes, including a brilliant three-point play in the lane that gave Stanford a 54-50 lead with 2:24 remaining. That is MOP-type stuff.
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Even though Arizona had a chance to win the game at the buzzer, Stanford's defense dictated large stretches. How did the Cardinal's defense keep the Wildcats out of sync?
Creme: After the game VanDerveer acknowledged that Stanford didn't play particularly well. But she perhaps sells her team and herself short with regard to the Cardinal's defensive game plan and effort.
McDonald's performance played out just like the two other meetings between Stanford and Arizona. She was able to get her points, but it took an inefficient amount of shots to do it. That weakened the Wildcats' ability to put together anything sustainable on offense the entire game. McDonald's game-high 22 points on 21 shots was a far cry from her 26 points on 17 field goal attempts against UConn, or 33 points on 20 field goal attempts against Indiana in the Elite Eight.
The difference was Stanford's experience defending McDonald and the ability to execute a game plan to slow her down. Anna Wilson, who struggled to defend South Carolina's Zia Cooke in the semifinals, was very good at steering McDonald to spots on the floor the Cardinal preferred her to be. The length of Jones, Cameron Brink and Ashley Prechtel at the rim did the rest.
Stanford wins national title after locking up McDonald in final seconds
Stanford's defense holds firm on the final possession as Aari McDonald misses the game-winning shot and the Cardinal come away with a 54-53 win.
Adelson: Charlie nailed it. In addition to that plan, what I found most interesting in what McDonald said afterward was that Stanford was even more physical than it was in the teams' first two meetings. So I asked VanDerveer why that was part of the game plan this time.
"In the NCAA tournament, this is very physical," she said. "South Carolina is very physical. Louisville is very physical. Missouri State is very physical. So we got more physical as the tournament went on."
Arizona shot only 29% for the game, and Barnes noted afterward that what Stanford likes to do defensively is simply not a great matchup for what the Wildcats want to do on offense. "Playing in the quarter court against Stanford is not an advantage for Arizona," Barnes said. "Going downhill, playing fast in transition, our defense creating our offense is an advantage for Arizona. We weren't able to convert on some of those things."
Voepel: Stanford won by 27 and 14 points in two regular-season meetings with the Wildcats. This one, as expected, was so much tougher for Stanford to win. The reason VanDerveer is now 65-11 all-time against Arizona after tonight's victory is that she had one of the best defensive teams she has ever had. That's saying something when you've had teams with defensive players the caliber of Val Whiting and Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike. But this Stanford team showed a toughness that VanDerveer asked of it, and that was with both its interior and perimeter defense.
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In our Way-Too-Early Top 25 for 2021-22, Charlie ranks UConn, South Carolina and Stanford at the top. There will be more roster upheaval and transfers, but which team right now is your pick to raise the 2022 trophy? And what's another team on the rise we should keep an eye on?
Creme: The two best recruiting classes belong to UConn and South Carolina, and neither team loses any key contributors. It would be hard to bet against either as Final Four favorites 12 months from now. I felt much of this season that this was the year to get the Huskies because they could be on the brink of another big run of championships. With Azzi Fudd arriving in Storrs, the talent jumps to another level. In UConn's most dominant years, depth was always the only question. That won't be the case next season. The Huskies are my favorite to win the title.
The Big Ten and NCAA tournaments were a great showcase for Iowa. We saw how exciting the Hawkeyes' offense is and the incredible skill set of Caitlin Clark. The Hawkeyes feel one player shy of a breakthrough as a more serious Final Four contender. If Lisa Bluder could land a center or forward who can control the paint defensively and protect the rim, Iowa could be next year's Arizona.
Adelson: I agree with Charlie. UConn is my early favorite, although I think it is fair to question whether the Huskies should be considering how this season ended. We know that the Huskies return a load of talent -- including Paige Bueckers -- but coach Geno Auriemma also acknowledged after the loss to Arizona that his team needs to work on the many intangibles that make championship programs. That includes Bueckers.
Auriemma plans to be back in the Final Four, but to win it all, the Huskies need to develop better leadership and more mental toughness, along with a work ethic that won't allow them to take anything for granted. In that regard, I am definitely going to keep my eye on South Carolina. The Gamecocks would be my next choice.
Voepel: I think the missed putback in the national semifinals will drive South Carolina's Aliyah Boston all summer, and she's already extremely driven and talented. The Gamecocks' core of Boston, Zia Cooke and Brea Beal will be juniors, and I think they will be on a mission next season. They are my early pick to be 2022 champions, but I also won't be surprised to see a Stanford repeat. This group of Cardinal players didn't talk about the 29-year drought like it was a big burden on their shoulders, but you know they felt the pressure of finally getting another title for VanDerveer. With that pressure lifted, Stanford very well could come back and win this title again. UConn, of course, will be in the mix, too, as usual.
Who are your front-runners for the 2021-22 preseason national player of the year?
Creme: Given that seven of the 10 players on the ESPN 2021 All-America teams return next season, including Bueckers, the race is wide open. Bueckers has to be near the top of the list, as does Kentucky's Rhyne Howard, who was the favorite heading into this season. But Baylor's NaLyssa Smith is the player I am putting at the top of my list. Her athleticism is off the charts. Smith's overall game and confidence seemed to catch up to her raw ability in the second half of the season. She seems ready to get to yet another level, which could make Smith, who won the Wade Trophy this season, the best player in the country.
Adelson: Bueckers and Clark are going to get lots of preseason love after their freshman phenom seasons, but I'm going to keep an eye on Michigan's Naz Hillmon, whose career with the Wolverines has been on an upward trajectory since she arrived in Ann Arbor. Hillmon averaged a double-double this season (23.6 PPG, 11.4 RPG), and I think she will have the opportunity to be as dominant -- if not more dominant -- as Smith.
Voepel: It's going to be a fascinating race, and the preseason nod might indeed go to Smith. Along with the players Charlie and Andrea mentioned, South Carolina's Boston, Stanford's Jones and Iowa State's Ashley Joens will be battling it out, too. There might not be a consensus for the award, because there is a whole lot of talent.