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 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 a underdog team that captured the country’s imagination and nearly its first NCAA title.
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.
Haley Jones had 17 points to lead Stanford. It was a challenging season, as Stanford had to spend nine weeks from December to February on the road because of COVID-19 regulations in Santa Clara County. It prepared the Cardinal for the past three weeks in the NCAA tournament bubble in San Antonio.
VanDerveer’s wait for the title is legendary. 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 behind 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 team started a streak of six consecutive gold medals for the U.S. women heading into the Tokyo Games this year. The success of the Americans also contributed to the launch of two U.S.-based pro league. The WNBA was the one that lasted, and has its 25th anniversary season this year.
Stanford went to five Final Fours from 2008-12, losing in the 2008 and 2010 championship games to Tennessee and UConn. The Cardinal had two other Final Four trips in 2014 and ’17, losing in the semifinals in both.
Had Aliyah Boston’s putback at the buzzer on Friday gone in, it would have given Stanford its 11th semifinal loss. But the Cardinal survived 66-65, and then faced familiar foe Arizona in the final.
It was 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.
VanDerveer coached at Idaho and Ohio State. In December, she passed the late Tennessee coach Pat Summitt for most wins in Division I women’s history. Her career record is now at 1,125-255, including 973-204 at Stanford.
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