Stanford wins first national title since 1992

No. 1 overall seed Stanford got the job done in a season unlike any other and that kept them on the road for most of the season. The Cardinal outlasted No. 3 seed Arizona, 54-53, in the NCAA women's basketball national championship game from San Antonio on Sunday night. It's their first title since 1992 and the third overall for the program, all under head coach Tara VanDerveer. 

Arizona senior Aari McDonald missed the final shot at the buzzer as Stanford's defense created trouble on the inbound and trapped her up top. It was the Wildcats first national title appearance. 

McDonald drilled a 3-pointer to pull Arizona within one, 51-50, with 3:25 on the clock. The senior struggled from the floor in the title game, a stark drop from her production from behind the arc up to this point. 

Jones hit a clutch jumper for Stanford and made the and-1 to pull four points away. It was then McDonald's turn again. She made three free throws within the final minutes to again pull Arizona into the game, 54-53, with 36.6 seconds to play. The defense forced Stanford into a shot clock violation to give their offense 6.1 seconds with which to work. 

McDonald rushed in first half 

Stanford came out hot to build a 12-3 lead off 3-pointers by Ashten Prechtel and Kiana Williams. The Cardinal rattled off a 12-0 run to take their largest lead, 14-3, and head into the second quarter up, 16-8. Arizona had its opportunities off of stout defense and three turnovers, but connected on 3-of-19 shooting with four missed shots under the basket. 

The Wildcats answered with their own 12-2 run that carried over into the second quarter and took their first lead, 21-20, at 4:44 with a characteristic steal-and-score by Shaina Pellington. Stanford went back up by 10 with a four-point play by Lexis Hull, a floater by Williams kept alive with an offensive rebound by Alyssa Jerome, a defensive stuff of McDonald in the left side of the paint and a 3-pointer by Anna Wilson. Pellington's layup and-1 brought the Wildcats within seven by the half, 31-24. 

McDonald said on the ESPN broadcast she was "pressing a little bit" and needed to "let the game come to me" instead of rush it. She was 2-for-11, including 1-of-3 from range, for five points, two assists and two steals at half. But the rest of her teammates kept Arizona in it as five players had at least three points each. 

Stanford, meanwhile, kept upping their tournament-record 3-point clip by shooting 4-for-8 from behind the arc and 13-of-29 overall. Four different players hit shots from 3-point range. Hull led all scorers with eight and Prechtel had seven off the bench. They out-rebounded, 26-14, but turned it over 10 times and allowed Arizona to keep close in the half. 

Arizona forces Stanford into turnovers 

Stanford turned it over seven times in the third quarter, though Arizona continued to have trouble turning it into points and McDonald struggled from the floor. It was Pellington's speed that helped turn momentum to Arizona's favor. She grabbed a defensive rebound with 3:11 left and went all the way to cap a 7-0 run with the help of an excellent box-out to clear her way. It cut the deficit to three, 41-38. 

The Cardinal turned it over two consecutive times, but McDonald missed an open 3-pointer and tripped in the paint. Jones broke the run with a drive to her right as the Cardinal ran with a smaller lineup. Pellington scored a final basket on a turnover and the defense forced Wilson into a turnover to go into the final quarter trailing, 43-40.  

Jones and Cameron Brink combined for six points at the start of the quarter as it looked like Stanford would pull away. As they have all night, the Wildcats didn't go quietly and Pellington's and-1 brought them back within four, 51-47, with five minutes to play. 

Historic title game for Arizona, Pac-12

It was the first time in women's or men's NCAA basketball tournament history that two Pac-12 teams met in the final. In the women's game it's the seventh championship game featuring teams from the same conference. The last was in 2017 when South Carolina won its first championship over Mississippi State. 

"This is honestly a dream come true for us in the Pac-12 because for so long, the conference has not gotten the respect that I feel it deserves," Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer said ahead of the final.

The meeting guaranteed the Pac-12 would win its first women's basketball title since 1992, when Stanford won it last. Arizona's entrance in the Final Four this year marked the fourth time in six seasons a Pac-12 team has made its first trip to the semifinals. The West coast disrespect has lessened in recent years with Oregon's rise, but is still there.

"For me to constantly see the Pac-12 have no respect, it's continuously and it's always happening," Arizona coach Adia Barnes said. "So now I'm hoping that with both of us in the championship game, that the Pac-12 will get more respect, and the East Coast bias will stop. It's not going to stop overnight, but I think that you need to respect the Pac-12 a lot more."

Barnes became the second Division I women's basketball coach to take her team to the title game in her first NCAA tournament as head coach. She joins Leon Barmore of Louisiana Tech in 1983. Arizona's deepest tournament run was the Sweet 16 when Barnes was a player. The Wildcats last NCAA tournament was in 2005. 

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