Stanford crown the dream and win the third NCAA Championship after 29 years
Breaking down the NCAA Women’s Basketball Final.
by Alessandra Puglisi
Courtesy of Eric Gay via AP
The March Madness reached its peak on Sunday night with the final game of the NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament between the No. 1 seed Stanford Cardinal and the No. 3 seed Arizona Wildcats.
After the previous edition got canceled due to the outbreak of Covid-19, in 2021 the much-awaited tournament was hosted in Texas, with the majority of games in San Antonio.
Coached by legendary Tara VanDerveer in her 36th season with Stanford, the Cardinal have reached the NCAA final for the fifth time. In their long run, they have won the tournament three times in 1990, 1992, and 2021, and have been runners-up in 2008 and 2010.
The road to reach the final has been long and hard for Stanford, with a season plagued by disruption and uncertainty. Due to a strict ban on contact sports in Santa Clara County — where the University is located — the team has played fewer home games, spending the majority of their time on the road to reach gyms and sites where they could practice. VanDerveer’s team has shown unprecedented resilience and commitment to the sport, with players training in high school facilities and cramming their lives inside buses and suitcases. But the hard work has paid off, and Stanford reached San Antonio, Texas, as the overall top seed ready to win the tournament.
On the other side of the coin, there were the Arizona Wildcats in their first NCAA final. Adia Barnes’ team had never made it past the round of Sweet 16 before and was playing in its first NCAA tournament since 2005. In the semifinals — Final Four round — the No. 3 seed Arizona stunned No. 1 seed Connecticut Huskies in what has been, perhaps, the most unexpected win of the season. Arizona’s strong defence has been a huge asset during the whole tournament, constantly putting pressure on their adversaries and forcing them to commit mistakes.
The first quarter of the championship final was mostly dominated by the Cardinal, with sophomore guard Haley Jones leading the starting lineup for number of points, followed suit by MVP Lexie Hull. The Wildcats’ star Aari McDonald only scored three points, but she proved to be essential to Arizona’s game from the get-go, disrupting Stanford’s defence and feeding incredible balls to her teammates. The end of the quarter saw Stanford on top with a 16-8 advantage.
The second quarter of the game had Arizona bouncing back and gaining the upper hand with a 21-20 lead, but the joy was short-lived. Stanford suffered the absence of Haley Jones on their offensive side, after the sophomore guard got into foul trouble within the first five minutes of the second quarter. Lexie Hull took over for Stanford, but the team slipped under and allowed the Wildcats to claw back into contention. Arizona’s Aari McDonald’s did not play her best first half, but the senior guard did a great job of cutting spaces through the Cardinal’s defence, grabbing two steals to give the Wildcats some hope. Despite leading 31-24, Stanford’s performance was sloppy in the second quarter, suffering Arizona’s defensive pressure and 9 turnovers by the end of the first half of the game.
Adia Barnes’ team entered the third quarter of the game eager to reclaim the lead, showing good possession of the ball and a more offensive performance. Aari McDonald found her flow again, scoring five free throws for Arizona. Junior guard Bendu Yeaney only scored two points but made terrific runs to feed the ball to her teammates and managed four steals. The back and forth between the two teams continued, Stanford leading with an overall of 43-40 and besting Arizona with a 22-13 for number of points scored in the paint.
The final quarter of the game was the real grueling battle between the two teams. Stanford maintained the lead, never slipping behind, but Arizona fought relentlessly, forcing the Cardinal to defend on any given occasion. Shaina Pellington came through for the Wildcats with her aggressive playing and 15 points under her belt. Sensational Aari McDonald scored a deep three-pointer to bring the Wildcats 50-51. It was a one-point game until the outstanding Haley Jones challenged back with a three-pointer jump shot to give Stanford some room to breathe. The scoreboard read 50-54. Arizona pushed as McDonald drew two fouls herself, scoring three free throws and bringing the game to a close 53-54. With only six seconds on the clock, Aari McDonald tried to do the impossible to give Arizona their first historical championship. Despite the Cardinal conceding their 21st turnover, Arizona did not manage to capitalize on the run and the buzzer went off.
After a difficult and unpredictable season, Tara VanDerveer’s team claimed the NCAA trophy again for the first time in 29 years. Despite coming up short, Adia Barnes and the Wildcats showed a well-executed game plan and incredible grit. The phenomenal face-off between Aari McDonald and Haley Jones kept fans of both teams on their toes until the end. There is no doubt the two players are going to be a bright promise for the future of the WNBA.