SAN ANTONIO — Tara VanDerveer hugged each of her Stanford players as they climbed the ladder to cut down the nets, capping a whirlwind journey and ending a long championship drought for the Cardinal.
After having to be on the road for 10 weeks this season because of the coronavirus, VanDerveer and the Cardinal are NCAA women’s basketball champions.
Haley Jones scored 17 points as Stanford beat Arizona, 54-53, on Sunday night, giving the Cardinal and their Hall of Fame coach their first national championship in 29 years.
"We had some special karma going for us," VanDerveer said. "Had the comeback against Louisville, dodge a bullet against South Carolina, dodge a bullet against Arizona. Sometimes you have to be lucky. I’ll admit it, we were very fortunate to win."
Stanford (31-2) did just enough to earn its second straight one-point win in the tournament.
The Cardinal built a nine-point lead in the fourth quarter before Arizona (21-6) cut it to 51-50 on star guard Aari McDonald’s three-pointer. After a timeout, Jones answered with a three-point play with 2:24 left.
"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."
That would be Stanford’s last basket of the game, and McDonald hit three of four free throws to get the Wildcats within 54-53 with 36.6 seconds left.
The Cardinal, after another timeout, couldn’t even get a shot off, giving Arizona one last chance with 6.1 seconds left, but the Wildcats had difficulty inbounding and McDonald’s contested shot from the top of the key 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 McDonald, who fell near midcourt, slumped in disbelief.
"We fought. We weren’t the best team in the tournament. No one thought we would be here," said Adia Barnes, the fourth Black female coach to lead her team to the national title game. "We came within a basket of winning a national championship. My heart is broken, but I can’t ask for anything more of this team."
"They just built on their confidence, just built and built and built throughout the tournament," VanDerveer said of Arizona. "The fact that we beaten them twice and, quite honestly, in Arizona we beat them very badly. A real credit to their team and staff. They played great."
It’s been quite a journey for VanDerveer and the Cardinal this season. The team was forced on the road for nearly 10 weeks because of the coronavirus, 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,’’ Jones said. "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. 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."
Along the way, VanDerveer earned her 1,099th career victory to pass Pat Summitt for the most in women’s basketball history. Now the 67-year-old coach has a third national title to go along with the ones she won in 1990 and 1992. That moved her into a tie with Baylor’s Kim Mulkey for third-most behind Geno Auriemma and Summitt.
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 championship for the Pac-12 since VanDerveer and Stanford won the title in 1992.