Anna Wilson’s defense won a championship. Against Arizona. Again.
With 6.1 seconds on the clock in the Alamodome, Arizona called a timeout to set up a play. On one bench, Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer told her team to all-out defend Arizona guard Aari McDonald. On the other bench, Arizona head coach Adia Barnes told her team “it was going to be Aari or nothing.”
McDonald caught the inbound, and Wilson immediately fronted her. She kept her feet moving and ceded nothing. McDonald went to her preferred left side and Wilson was there. A dribble to the right and Wilson was there. Back to the left and Wilson was there. And junior guard Lexie Hull. And freshman forward Cameron Brink. The three Cardinal, all on four fouls, trapped McDonald.
Both teams knew who would be taking the shot with the game on the line. McDonald did not, could not and would not relinquish the ball. She spun out of the trap and put up a desperation heave fading away. It clanged off the back rim.
For the first time in 29 years, first overall seed Stanford women’s basketball (31-2, 19-2 Pac-12) celebrated in the confetti on the sport’s final weekend. There were T-shirts, nets to cut and hats to wear backwards (VanDerveer) or sideways (senior guard Kiana Williams). There was a weekend’s worth of emotion, a tournament’s worth of hard-fought play, a season’s worth of exaltation and 29 years’ worth of anticipation.
After years and years of coming so close, VanDerveer reached the sport’s pinnacle again. Her 29-year gap between titles is the longest in Division I men’s or women’s history. Her 1,125 wins are the most in Division I women’s history.
“I think sometimes you got to be lucky,” VanDerveer said. “I will admit it, we were fortunate. We were very fortunate to win.”
It just as easily could have been third-seeded Arizona (21-6, 13-4 Pac-12). If that last shot had gone in, that is the story. If South Carolina had made one of its two putbacks, there is no championship game. VanDerveer shared that message with her team, if not in the final huddle, then before the game. Win or lose, “it doesn’t change you fundamentally as a person.”
What VanDerveer did tell her team in the huddle before the last shot was to lock in, to play defense, switch and communicate. It was all of the work they had already been put in during practice. There was no special defense. Stanford just needed to execute. VanDerveer told her team it would be the last six seconds they would have as a group, so they needed to leave everything on the court. Wilson, then Hull and Brink, gave McDonald their all.
“We had like three people on her. They were suffocating her,” said sophomore forward Haley Jones, the fifth player on the court for the last sequence. “She’s a great player. That had to be done; we knew she would be the one taking the shot.”
“We knew who they were going to,” Williams said. “She was killing us all game, so we knew who they were going to. When she had it up top, they overloaded one side, and I just told Lexie (Hull) to just go trap her. They made it a difficult shot and thankfully she missed it. We made a play at the end.”
When the ball was released, neither Jones or Williams had any thoughts. For the second game in a row, the buzzer sounded with an opponent’s shot hanging in the air and the season in the balance. Both times, the rim was on Stanford’s side.
“I really had no thoughts,” Jones added. “My mind was completely blank when she shot the ball. There’s three people there — that’s all you can do. It’s not up to us any more at that point.
“I don’t even think I was thinking at that moment,” Williams said. “I knew she had a tough look, but when I saw it it had a really good chance to go in.”
Unsurprisingly, their coach felt sick. Stanford had the ball up by one point with 36 seconds and out of a timeout, committed a 30-second violation for the team’s season-high 21st turnover.
“I was back in that dentist’s chair,” VanDerveer said. “I mean, it was painful. The fact when we had the ball, we needed to hang on to it, at least get a shot up. At least we held onto the ball for a while.”
Stanford’s shot clock violation left Arizona 6.1 seconds. Wilson locked down one last time. Brink and Hull were there to ensure that McDonald did not get a clean look.
“I got denied hard,” McDonald said. “I tried to turn the corner, they sent three at me. I took a tough, contested shot. Didn’t fall.”
As the shot fell to the floor, Brink, Hull, Jones and Wilson raced over to the East side of the court to celebrate with their teammates, coaches and staff. Williams waited around to congratulate McDonald on an incredible career.
“I just congratulated her on leading her team to the national championship game when nobody thought they would do it,” Williams said. “I just congratulated her on an excellent career. She’s really turned around the Arizona program. It was really inspiring to watch from a distance.
“She’s a great competitor. She brings the best out of me and out of other people that she plays against. I just congratulated her on a great year.”
Meanwhile, Williams had the storybook ending. She returned to her hometown, where her basketball journey began, and played in front of friends and family. She dazzled. She hit 14 three-pointers through the tournament’s first three games. She ends the season, and likely her Stanford career, with 311 three-pointers, the most in program history, and 1,834 career points, ranked 10th.
Against Louisville, Williams hit a wall, but got her team to the Final Four. On the biggest stage, she struggled. She made six-of-20 shots across the semifinal and final and did not reach double figures in scoring. She made just one three-pointer and attempted only four. In the championship game, she had six turnovers.
Despite knowing ahead of time that Arizona would trap her, in the moment she forced things, or dribbled into the trap itself.
“The last two games I’ve struggled, but credit to Arizona and South Carolina, their defenses took me out of my comfort zone,” Williams said. “Some easy looks that I usually get, I didn’t get any easy looks… The scoring load wasn’t solely on me. I don’t have to score 20 points for us to win, and that showed tonight.”
On Sunday, Jones took over the scoring mantle and was named the tournament’s most outstanding player. She had 17 points, including the game-winning shot, a free throw to complete a three-point play, for the second straight game. Nevermind that Stanford did not score over the final 2:24 after Jones’ shot, or that the 54 points were the team’s fewest all season. Stanford is the national champion. And Williams played 40 minutes of gritty basketball.
She was still lifting her teammates up, telling them she needs them after a turnover of their own.
“Ki, she always lifts us up,” Jones said. “If she’s not having the best game,it’s fine. I still have confidence every time Ki shoots the ball it’s going in. Sometimes I get yelled for not crashing the O boards. But I’m like, ‘Tara, I think it’s going in.’ That’s just how much confidence we all have in her. When she’s not playing her best, we know she’s still going to do everything that she can to help the team win because she’s that unselfish. She wants the best for the team.”
That was probably the biggest difference from when Stanford won the two regular season games by a combined 41 points. But for the second straight game, Stanford eked out a one-point win, and counted on Jones both times.
“She was a go-to player on the stretch, no two ways about it,” VanDerveer said. “When we wanted a basket, we went to Haley and she delivered. There were some shots that she missed, but she was always right at the rim.
At halftime, VanDerveer told Haley to “step up and play the game you can and you’ll be the MVP.” Haley delivered with 13 points in the second half and finished with eight rebounds.
“I didn’t have the best first half, I got in foul trouble, which hurt me, the team,” Jones said. “In the second half I had to get back. Alyssa (Jerome) was telling me, ‘This is your half, this is all you, this is your time.’”
Jerome, the senior forward from Canada, had been at the heart of the team all year even if the minutes were not there. She had been a starter before. She led the pregame cheer in the tunnel. And on Sunday, she provided valuable minutes with four rebounds and an assist.
“Alyssa Jerome has been a great leader for us,” VanDerveer said. “Anna Wilson has been a great leader. Kiana [Williams], as a senior. They are a very close team. Lexie [Hull] and Lacie [Hull], the sisterhood has helped our team be a very close team. Getting through all of the things that we got through, we are excited to win the COVID championship.”
VanDerveer went 11-deep into her bench trying to find spark and consistency. Freshman guard Jana Van Gytenbeek, who had not played since the first weekend, played two minutes.
Hull finished with 10 points and 10 rebounds. Wilson scored five with four rebounds and three assists. Sophomore forward Ashten Prechtel had seven points and eight rebounds. Brink added another 10 points and six rebounds. She added three blocks to her season total and now owns the program record for blocks in a season with 88. Those four players, along with Jones and Williams, were the only ones to score for the Cardinal.
VanDerveer is a player’s coach. She attributes her successes to her players, whether it is another record, award (Naismith Coach of the Year was a recent one) or a championship. She takes ownership of failures. She does not call her players immature. She wanted to go into teaching and loves figuring out what the puzzle will be for each year. That is why the alumni adore her and why her current players wanted to win her another championship.
“It starts with her. It starts with T-Dawg,” Williams said. “She is a great leader, a great coach and an even better person. We know that she cares about us as people, not just as basketball players. I am so excited that the job is over for her. To win this in my home city for her, I am just so thankful.”
“This program is what it is because of Tara,” Jones said. “The legacy she’s created, just being able to be recruited by her, now be a part of the team, and then to take that a step further and win a national championship after the 29-year-long drought.”
So the win on Sunday was not just for the players in the game, but everyone who had come before.
“I really feel like we won this for all of the great players that have played at Stanford,” VanDerveer said. “I know that these women are kind of on the shoulders of those women. Former players would be so proud to be part of this team because of the resilience they’ve shown, because of the sisterhood that they represent. I’m just thrilled for this team, but also for all the women out there that played at Stanford.”
VanDerveer, in the year she became the winningest coach of all time, won her third national championship. Williams, playing the NCAA Tournament entirely in her hometown, celebrated the historic ending.
It was a gritty win, not a pretty one. Stanford likes to play a complete game but only won the first quarter. Stanford turned the ball over on 30.9% of its possessions and averaged just 0.794 points per possession.
But the defense came through, as it had all season long. Three of Arizona’s five lowest scoring games came against Stanford. On Sunday, they became the 12th team to shoot below 30%. Every Stanford opponent shot below 42%. Despite turning the ball over 21 times, Stanford’s defense held Arizona to 12 points off of turnovers.
In three games against Wilson and Stanford this season, McDonald shot 25.8%. In all of the others she shot 43.9%. On Sunday, she was one-for-11 from inside the arc.
“Anna Wilson is a terrific defender,” VanDerveer said. “I know Aari had 22 points, but she had to work very hard for each one of those points.”
In addition to McDonald’s inefficient night, forwards Cate Reese and Trinity Baptiste were held to four and seven points, respectively. Guard Shaina Pellington, who Stanford mostly chose not to guard, had 15 points and seven rebounds. Forward Sam Thomas did not score.
It was McDonald’s team to carry and Wilson, Brink and Hull combined to shut her down when it mattered most. There is a reason Stanford was plus-10 with Wilson on the court, plus-11 with Hull and plus-4 with Brink. Williams, who played all 40 minutes and thus had a plus-1, was the only player with a positive plus/minus.
“If you look at the game, the whole time I think they forced her — they were allowing tough threes,” Barnes said. “They didn’t ever give her space. She was just maneuvering and finding ways to go downhill. But a lot of bodies in the paint. Every time she went downhill, there were posts in the paint or weak side help. We kind of expected that. We knew that.”
The defense led the way. The offense did just enough. Stanford added to its trophy case and brings momentum into the offseason. By the start of next year, four new freshmen will join the team and look to repeat. But for now, Stanford can celebrate.
“I am just so proud of this team,” Williams said. “We are champs. I can’t believe it. We are champs.”