SAN ANTONIO — Stanford women's basketball coach Tara VanDerveer hugged each of her players Sunday night as they climbed the ladder to cut down the nets at the Alamodome, capping a taxing whirlwind journey and ending an exhausting national title drought for the Cardinal.
It took 29 years — including 10 weeks on the road this season because of the coronavirus pandemic — for VanDerveer and the Cardinal to be crowned NCAA champions again.
"We had some special karma going for us," VanDerveer said. "Had the comeback against Louisville, dodge a bullet against South Carolina, dodge bullet against Arizona. Sometimes you have to be lucky. I'll admit it, we were very fortunate to win."
Haley Jones scored 17 points as Stanford beat Arizona 54-53, giving the Cardinal and their Hall of Fame coach their first national championship since 1992.
"Getting through all the things we got through, we're excited to win the COVID championship," said VanDerveer, whose team was the 64-team bracket's No. 1 overall seed. "The other one was not quite as close, the last one. But we're really excited. No one knows the score, no one knows who scored, it's a national championship."
It wasn't a masterpiece by any stretch, with both teams struggling to score and missing easy layups and shots, but Stanford did just enough to pull off the win — its second straight by a point.
The Cardinal (31-2) built a nine-point lead in the fourth quarter before Arizona (21-6) cut it to 51-50 on star guard Aari McDonald's 3-pointer.
After a timeout, Jones answered with a three-point play with 2:24 left. That was Stanford's last basket of the game. McDonald got the Wildcats within 54-53 with 36.6 seconds left by converting three of four free throws.
"I just owe it all to my teammates; they have confidence in me when I don't have confidence in myself," said Jones, who was honored as the tournament's most outstanding player. "I saw they needed me to come up big, and I did."
The Cardinal, after another timeout, couldn't even get a shot off, giving Arizona one last chance with 6.1 seconds left, but McDonald's contested shot from the top of the key at the buzzer bounced off the rim.
"I got denied hard. I tried to turn the corner, they sent three at me. I took a tough, contested shot and it didn't fall," said the 5-foot-6 senior, who fell near midcourt, slumped in disbelief while the Cardinal celebrated.
McDonald finished with 22 points on 5-of-20 shooting for the third-seeded Wildcats, who had a chance to become only the fourth team to trail by double digits and win the title game. Stanford had rolled past Arizona in two regular-season meetings, winning by double digits in each game.
It's been quite a journey for VanDerveer and the Cardinal this season. The team was kept away from its California campus for nearly 10 weeks because of the pandemic, spending 86 days in hotels during this nomadic season.
"It was a long, very difficult journey being on the road, sleeping in hotels, living out of your bag. It's just a lot. You're on the bus, you're on planes all the time, and there's just never really an end in sight, so it's difficult," Jones said. "But I think from that experience and losing on the road and dropping one at home, I think it just really kind of grew this extra, like, chip on our shoulder almost."
The team didn't complain and went about its business, and now the program has another NCAA championship. Along the way, VanDerveeer earned her 1,099th career victory to pass Tennessee legend Pat Summitt for the most in women's basketball history.
Now the 67-year-old coach has a third national title to go with the ones she won in 1990 and 1992. That moved her into a tie with Baylor's Kim Mulkey for third behind Connecticut's Geno Auriemma (11) and the late Summitt (eight).
VanDerveer had many great teams between titles, including the ones led by Candice Wiggins and the Ogwumike sisters — Nneka and Chiney — but the Cardinal just couldn't end their season with that elusive win in the title game until Sunday night.
It was the first women's basketball NCAA title for the Pac-12 since VanDerveer and Stanford won in 1992. The last time a team from the conference was in the title game was 2010, when the Cardinal lost to Connecticut. That game was also played in the Alamodome — the site of every game in this tournament from the Sweet 16 onward. The entire tourney was played in the San Antonio area because of the pandemic.
While Stanford had history on its side, Arizona has been building under coach Adia Barnes, who was the fourth Black woman to lead her team to the championship game, joining Carolyn Peck, Dawn Staley and C. Vivian Stringer. Peck and Staley won titles.
Barnes starred for the Wildcats as a player in the late 1990s and came back to her alma mater five years ago. She guided the team to the Women's National Invitation Tournament title in 2019 and led them to their first NCAA title game ever. This was the team's first appearance in the NCAA tourney at all since 2005 — although the Wildcats would have made the field last season had the event not been canceled by the coronavirus.