Twice before, Stanford beat Arizona. Twice before, Stanford won a national championship. But the third is always more difficult.
This afternoon, first overall seed Stanford (30-2, 19-2 Pac-12) meets third-seeded Arizona (21-5, 13-4 Pac-12).
The teams finished first and second in the Pac-12 regular season standings, and it was a win over Arizona that clinched the Pac-12 regular season title for the first time in seven years. Stanford’s celebration on that night was subdued due to the fanless environment.
On Saturday, Stanford women’s basketball took the press conference as an opportunity to publicize its conference, beginning with head coach Tara VanDerveer, long a proponent of the Pac-10 and later Pac-12.
“We play in a great league, and we have outstanding universities, outstanding coaches and players,” VanDerveer said. “I think one of the things that has elevated the game has been Pac-12 Networks. The rest of the country has been able to see our teams and see our players and see our games.
“I also would say that even before we were the Pac-12 we had great teams,” VanDerveer added. “Unfortunately a lot of people didn’t see us play so I don’t think we got really good seeds in the NCAA Tournament, but as long as I’ve been at Stanford, it’s been extremely competitive.”
The Pac-12 is guaranteed a champion on Sunday and has been praised for its decision to play a conference-heavy schedule this season among the challenges presented by the pandemic. Instead of its typical 18-game format, each Pac-12 team was scheduled to play every conference opponent twice. Due to cancellations, no team quite reached that number (Stanford’s 21 conference games were the closest) but in any case, the competition from the best conference in the sport certainly did not hurt placing two teams in the championship game.
Unsurprisingly, VanDerveer was at the center of that decision. It was her call to Arizona head coach Adia Barnes which she credited for turning the tide in favor of the 22-game format.
“We had a conference call, and our coaches were a little divided on it, and I called Adia. I said, ‘Adia, 22 Games is a good thing.’ And she voted for it and that kind of switched it for our conference, and it has been a great thing for us and for Arizona, because a lot of teams couldn’t get games in, or weren’t going to be able to play the caliber that you wanted to play. So I think that both Adia, and really most of the coaches in our conference recognized that that was a good thing and it has turned out to be a good thing.”
Where Arizona has drawn inspiration from playing in its first Final Four and its perceived disrespect from being viewed as an underdog last round against UConn, VanDerveer has been fueled by representing the conference.
“I’m really excited that we have two teams from the Pac-12,” VanDerveer said. “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 invited two forwards, Cameron Brink and Ashten Prechtel, to speak to the media. Even as a freshman and sophomore, they were already stumping for the conference.
“I mean it’s great to see another Pac-12 team in the national championship like this,” Prechtel said.
“I’m kind of excited that we get to face a Pac-12 team in the championship,” Brink said. “I think it’s huge for the Pac-12 and I feel like it proves that we’re a great conference and people kind of count us out sometimes.”
Both players grew up in the Pac-12 footprint, Brink in Oregon and Prechtel in Colorado, and the effect of seeing games on television certainly played a role. Since 2013, half of the conference has appeared in the Final Four. Any way you spin it, there are two Pac-12 teams in the championship game for the first time in history.
“This whole year has been so weird, to play a conference opponent for the national championship, just fits in with the whole weirdness,” VanDerveer said.
“I think you approach it the same way but you maybe dig down a little deeper,” VanDerveer said. “I don’t have to say their starting point guard is Aari McDonald, they know things already. But we can look at things maybe at a different level.”
As for the opponent, familiarity will not hurt. Luckily for Stanford, fifth year guard Anna Wilson declined to share everything that she was doing on defense after the last regular season matchup.
In that game, Stanford held Arizona to a season-low 48 points, after limiting Arizona to a then-season low 54 in the first contest. Both times, the key was slowing down guard Aari McDonald. In the first game, the Arizona playmaker scored 12 points and made 3-of-18 shots. In the second, McDonald managed to score 20, but shot 8-for-24, missed all six 3-point attempts and was whistled for three charges.
Of course, the player on the floor after each of those charges was Wilson. She, or junior guard Lacie Hull when Wilson was resting, forced McDonald away from her tendencies. With a transcendent talent, that is the goal. Sometimes it is as simple, to say at least, as taking away the left.
In practice, it is much more difficult, as every team in the tournament has seen so far. McDonald is averaging 25.4 points per game, shooting at an elite level, facilitating, rebounding at a high level and continuing to play staunch defense.
“Arizona and Aari have elevated their game,” VanDerveer said. “She has flat out speed, she’s a jet, whether it’s quickness and speed. She’s got great hands. She’s super aggressive. We do know her very well, and she’s had a terrific career. I’ll be sending her a graduation present.”
Just as Wilson slowed down McDonald the first two games, Stanford is hoping its guard defense last game was an aberration. If what the coaches and players have seen is true, that Arizona has improved since the two teams last met, Stanford will need to be better.
Last time around, forward Sam Thomas was left open for 3-pointers. Only forward Cate Reese joins McDonald in double figures, but every rotation player averages more than 3.5 points per game. On top of it all, Arizona is playing with confidence.
“Arizona moves the ball, and what I noticed about them is they’re patient, they look for good shots,” VanDerveer said. “As good as Aari is, she’s not a selfish player, she creates for other players. Some players are creators and some are finishers and she’s got a lot of good finishers around her, and she creates for them.”
“So having said that, I really feel like we have the talent on our team, we have the motivation to match up with them and we have the confidence that we know that if we play well that we can be successful.”
“We just have to go in and play well,” Prechtel said. “Arizona has been playing great defense, and they’ve been playing great this tournament. I think for us we just have to stay calm, run our offense, and finish and execute our sets and I think we’ll do well.”
If Stanford plays its game, it will be national champions. Tip-off is at 3 p.m. PT.
“I think both teams have improved a lot,” VanDerveer said. “Arizona has improved and Stanford’s improved. Let’s see which team has improved more.”