SAN ANTONIO — Stanford snapped a 29-year title drought on the tails of 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 three 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 one point 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 came back on a fast break, and a trip to the foul line put the game within a point once more with 36 seconds left.
Her last-second jumper could have given Arizona its first national title in its championship debut, but it bounced off the back of the rim, instead handing the Cardinal its 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.
“This whole year has been so weird,” Stanford Coach Tara VanDerveer told reporters on Saturday. “To play a conference opponent for the national championship just fits in with the whole weirdness.”
It was a championship that brought together Pac-12 rivals for the first time on a national stage. A championship that featured one of the few Black coaches ever to reach it in a sport where more than 40 percent of its players are Black. A championship that concluded a tournament rife with conversation about the inequities between men’s and women’s college sports.
A championship played in front of a crowd that was equal parts cardboard cutouts and mask-wearing humans amid a deadly pandemic that shuttered most in-person events over the last year.
The win marks Stanford’s first national title since 1992 — all have been won with VanDerveer, who started coaching the Cardinal in 1985 and became the winningest coach in women’s college basketball history this season. In accordance with the pandemic’s ambience, she celebrated passing the longtime Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt on the wins list with just her team and staff in a practically barren stadium 80 miles north of Stanford’s campus while local health restrictions prohibited them from playing at home.
The tournament, centered in San Antonio as a means to curtail the spread of the coronavirus, has not been easy for Stanford, which was almost knocked out by Louisville in the round of 8 and South Carolina in the Final Four.
But Stanford had to overcome much more this season, living as nomads for nine weeks while Santa Clara County, Calif., prohibited contact sports in November. Out of options, the Cardinal started practicing in Las Vegas, living out of hotels and playing home games in the beach town of Santa Cruz, a 45-mile trek along a windy road — worlds away from the Silicon Valley school.
“There was a point where — I don’t even know that I should admit this — but I was like, I don’t know that we can keep doing this in terms of going to Santa Cruz, testing like we were testing,” VanDerveer told reporters on Saturday. “There were some days where I just said, ‘Whoa, this might be too much. We might have to just take a pause ourselves.’”
When they were able to play in their home arena again in February, athletes were isolated to their apartments at the outskirts of their training facilities, attending virtual classes and video chatting with loved ones as their only means to connect with people outside of their sports bubble.
The Cardinal bonded over the strange shared experience that saw them play an entirely in-conference season, and they won both the Pac-12 tournament and regular season title. VanDerveer said that the conference’s strength warmed them up for the national stage. The league had four top-25 schools right before the tournament.
“Every game to me in the Pac-12 feels like a battle,” VanDerveer said. “I think what has changed, more than anything, is that there’s no ‘gimme games.’”
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 on lock.
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.
“For me to constantly see the Pac-12 have no respect, have zero respect — and that shows up in Aari being second-team all American, this shows in that Aari not being defensive player of the year — it’s continuously and it’s always happening in the Pac 12,” Arizona Coach Adia Barnes told reporters on Saturday.
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 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.
“I’m hoping with both of us in the championship game, the Pac-12 will get some respect and the East Coast bias will stop,” Barnes told reporters on Saturday.
Barnes, meanwhile, was fighting to become the third Black female coach to claim the N.C.A.A. title. She is one of five Black women to have coached in a women’s Final Four, following in the footsteps of C. Vivian Stringer, Carolyn Peck, Pokey Chatman and Dawn Staley; the national semifinals this year was the first time that two Black head coaches led teams simultaneously.
“Our history here in women’s basketball is so filled with so many Black bodies that for this to be happening in 2021, to me, is long overdue,” Staley, the South Carolina coach and one of two Black women to win a national championship, said in a postgame interview this week about being one of two Black head coaches in this year’s Final Four.
The win marks an end to the teams’s stay in San Antonio, a controlled environment that offered a clear view of disparities between the men’s and women’s tournaments.
That, too, was marked by the virus.
“I don’t think it would have, no I don’t: Covid has exacerbated everything,” VanDerveer said of the disparities between the men’s and women’s tournaments coming to light in an interview with The New York Times on Thursday. “It has challenged us in ways we were really maybe unprepared for.”