Stanford beats Arizona in thriller for NCAA title

On Sunday afternoon, the 2020-21 women’s college basketball season came to a thrilling end.  After two weeks in a bubble environment in San Antonio, two teams were left standing.

Coincidentally, they were from the same conference and met for a third time this season, with all the marbles on the line.  

In what was a game of runs, both teams went after every possession. But when the game’s final buzzer sounded, Aari McDonald’s potential game-winner fell short as Stanford emerged victorious 54-53 to win the program’s first championship in 29 years.

“Getting through all the things we got through, we’re excited to win the COVID championship,” Stanford head coach Tara 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 and I’m really excited to represent Stanford. It’s a great team. We did not play a great game today, however. But if we can win, not playing as well as we need to, I’m excited.”

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)

Sophomore Haley Jones led the way for the Cardinal scoring 17 points, on 8-14 shooting. She added eight rebounds to her tally, with an assist and a block. She was also named the tournament’s most outstanding player.

“I mean, I just owe it to my teammates,” Jones said. “We have so much trust in each other. Even when I don’t have confidence in myself, I can look to them, they have confidence in me. The whole game, Alyssa Jerome…I didn’t have the best first half, I got in foul trouble, which hurt me, the team. In the second half.

“I had to get back,” Jones continued. “Alyssa was telling me, This is your half, this is all you, this is your time. They kept instilling me with their confidence they had. 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. I owe it to them for instilling it in me when not having it in myself.”

Arizona entered the championship game fresh off an emotional win over No. 1 seed UConn. They went into the game as massive underdogs, only to be a win away from their first championship in program history under fifth-year head coach Adia Barnes.

“This team is so special. I am so proud. We fought,” Barnes said. “We weren’t the best team in the tournament, no one thought we would be here. We believed in each other. We did not play a great game, but we battled. We played our hearts out and we came within one possession.”

The Wildcats were led by McDonald’s 22 points. Throughout the game, she was neutralized by a stifling Stanford defense that held her to 2-11 from the field in the first half, while also limiting her contested shot-making abilities keeping her in check by halftime. After the game, McDonald talked about her last attempt to win the game for Arizona. 

SAN ANTONIO, TX – APRIL 4: Aari McDonald #2 of the Arizona Wildcats drives to the basket against Cameron Brink #22 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 Justin Tafoya/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

“I mean, it was about 6.1 seconds left maybe,” McDonald said. “I got denied hard. I tried to turn the corner, they sent three at me. I took a tough, contested shot. Didn’t fall, so…that’s what I remember.”

Arizona struggled to find their shot in this game. Stanford held the Cats to 29 percent from the field (17-59) and a whopping 6-22 from behind the arc. What kept Arizona in the game was their ability to force 21 Stanford turnovers that translated into 12 second-chance points.

In a year where uncertainty was at every turn, the “conference of champions” has proven itself on the biggest of stages. While the game had a winner and loser, the Pac-12 has been winning all postseason with the rising success of its member institutions and their basketball programs.

Featured image: SAN ANTONIO, TX – APRIL 4: Kiana Williams #23 of the Stanford Cardinal grabs a loose ball from between Aari McDonald #2 and Lauren Ware #32 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)

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