SAN ANTONIO — When Tara VanDerveer and Stanford most recently appeared in an NCAA tournament title game, their conference had just 10 schools and the Cardinal were the standard bearers for the league.
Now 11 years later, the Pac-12 is on top of the women's basketball world with the Cardinal (30-2) facing Arizona (21-5) for the title at 6 p.m. Eastern on Sunday and ESPN televising the matchup. The conference is guaranteed its first national champion in women's basketball since the Hall of Fame coach and the Cardinal won their second and most recent title in 1992, two years after their first.
"I'm really proud of the Pac-12 to have two teams in the national championship game," said VanDerveer, who also led Stanford to the title matchup in 2008 in addition to that most recent 2010 appearance. "You know, this is not something that a lot of people could have imagined 10 years ago, 15 years ago, 20 years ago. And it's really, really exciting."
Stanford's most recent appearance in the final was a loss to the University of Connecticut in the Alamodome — the same building the Cardinal, the No. 1 seed in the Alamo Region and overall, will be playing in Sunday night — as the Huskies won their seventh of a record 11 national titles. A year later in 2011, the conference became the Pac-12 in the wake of expansion to add Colorado and Utah. The league has had six different schools in the Final Four since 2013, but none reached the title game until Friday night, when both Stanford and Arizona advanced.
Sunday night's game will pit two teams from west of the Mississippi River against each other for the first time since 1986.
"In the Pac-12 we've been saying all along we have the best teams in the country, and to have two Pac-12 teams speaks for itself," said Arizona coach Adia Barnes, whose Wildcats were seeded third in the Mercado Region. "Stanford won the Pac-12 championship and we were second. Both of us in the Final Four and championship game, it means a lot for our conference."
To get to this point, the Cardinal held on to beat Hemisfair Region No. 1 seed South Carolina 66-65 on a basket by Haley Jones with 32 seconds left Friday night. After Jones put the Cardinal up, Stanford survived two last-second misses by the Gamecocks.
Arizona didn't need any last-second karma for its 69-59 win against UConn, which was seeded No. 1 in the River Walk Region. All-America second-team guard Aari McDonald scored 26 points — the 5-foot-6 senior, who is lightning quick, is one of the rare players who can impact games on both ends of the court — and the Wildcats played stifling defense to put the clamps on the Huskies.
"No one thought we'd win, no one thought we'd be here," said Barnes, who played at Arizona from 1994 to 1998. "We don't care. We believed in each other. We believed, our team believed."
Arizona lost twice to Stanford during the regular season, but both teams are much improved from their most recent meeting on Feb. 22, which the Cardinal won 62-48.
"What's on our side is it's hard to beat a team three times in a season," Barnes said. "We're a lot better, and so is Stanford. Speaking about us, we're shooting the ball better, defending better and playing better basketball than when we played them."
Barnes has turned to VanDerveer many times over the course of the season for advice. The Arizona coach's respect goes back to her playing days.
"She's someone who will always be honest, and it's never honesty to benefit Stanford," Barnes said. "She's someone who wants to support you. She's very secure and wants to help women develop and wants to grow the game. She's an advocate for women's basketball, and I have the most respect for her."
All of this tourney's game have been broadcast nationally — with six on ABC, the first on a national broadcast network since 1995 — and people have been tuning in.
ESPN reported the Elite Eight averaged 1.186 million viewers, a jump of 6% from 2019. The Sweet 16 averaged 915,000 viewers for a 66% improvement and the most-viewed Sweet 16 since 2013. Second-round games averaged 375,000 viewers, while the 48 first- and second-round games averaged 261,000.
Arizona senior forward Sam Thomas said they're playing entertaining and quality basketball with future WNBA stars.
"It's just nice to now finally be here," Thomas said. "And we're getting some more respect. We're seeing change. So hopefully that progresses into the future as well."