There's no need for qualifiers anymore. The Stanford Cardinal are the best team in college basketball. They cemented that fact on Sunday evening with a thrilling 54-53 win over the Arizona Wildcats in the national championship game to win their first title since 1992.
It certainly wasn't the prettiest basketball game ever played, but it was an absolute battle that went down to the wire, and that's all you can ask for. Arizona, who had the best defense in the tournament, forced Stanford into a whopping 21 turnovers, including a shot clock violation with 5.5 seconds left.
That stop gave Arizona the ball and a chance to win the game on the final possession, but Stanford's defense came up with some heroics of their own. They knew that Arizona was going to give the ball to star point guard Aari McDonald, and multiple defenders swarmed her on the catch. With time running out, McDonald was forced to just heave the ball towards the basket, and her 3-point effort didn't go down.
Haley Jones led the way for Stanford, finishing with 17 points and eight rebounds on her way to being named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player, while Lexie Hull chipped in with a 10-point, 10-rebound double-double. Cameron Brink also added 10 points, six rebounds and three blocks.
On the Arizona side, McDonald went for 22 points, but really had to work for them. She picked things up in the second half to help lead the Wildcats' comeback, but went 5-of-20 from the field. Shaina Pellington stepped up with 15 points off the bench, but no one else scored in double figures.
Here are some key takeaways from the game:
Stanford finally wins another title
Ever since head coach Tara VanDerVeer took over in the mid-1980s, Stanford has been one of the best programs in the country. They've made the NCAA Tournament every year since 1988, and in that time have been to 27 Sweet Sixteens, 21 Elight Eights, and 14 Final Fours. And yet, until this year they only had two titles to show for all of it, and none since 1992.
This year, they finally got back to the winner's circle. It wasn't easy, as they were forced to go on the road for nine weeks in the middle of the season due to COVID-19 regulations in their home county in California, and faced difficult tests in both the Final Four and title game.
Against South Carolina in the Final Four, they escaped with a one-point win after the Gamecocks missed two layups in the closing seconds. Then, on Sunday night against Arizona, they only secured the win after Aari McDonald's 3-point heave at the buzzer hit the rim and bounced out.
But while they might have needed a little bit of luck at the end, they earned it with the way they played all season long. And anyway, a title is a title. No one in Palo Alto will be complaining about how it happened.
Aari McDonald's heroic run comes to an end
After the 2020 NCAA Tournament was cancelled due to COVID-19, Aari McDonald could have called it a college career and turned her attention to the WNBA, where she would have been a first-round pick. Instead, she decided to return to school, and in the process became a Wildcats legend.
She was named the Pac-12 Player of the Year, co-Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year and an AP Second Team All-American this season, and led Arizona to the tournament for the first time since 2005. Just getting to the dance wasn't enough, however, and she went on a brilliant run to lead Arizona to their first ever national title game. In fact, before this year they had never even gotten past the Sweet Sixteen.
McDonald's play was nothing short of heroic. She put up 31 points in the Elite Eight, 33 points in the Sweet Sixteen and 26 points in the Final Four, and her 149 points overall were the sixth-most in Women's NCAA Tournament history. All the while, she was playing incredible perimeter defense, often eliminating the other team's best scorer from the game.
On Sunday, however, she just couldn't quite muster up enough magic. She mentioned on air at halftime that she was pressing a bit early on, and Stanford's defense was stifling. Fellow co-Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Anna Wilson was shadowing her on the perimeter, and if McDonald did manage to create some space there were always help defenders waiting in the paint.
Though she had a better second half and finished with 22 points, her 5 of 20 shooting performance shows just how difficult things were for her. Stanford was determined to make someone else beat them, and that proved, just barely, to be the right strategy.
Haley Jones steps up again, wins MOP
Though just a sophomore, Haley Jones was an All-Pac-12 performer this season, and a finalist for the Cheryl Miller Award, which honors the best small forward in the country. She didn't end up winning that one, but in the tournament she showed exactly why she was up for such a prestigious honor.
Jones was Stanford's best player all tournament long, averaging 14.1 points, 6.3 rebounds and 3.1 assists, while shooting 60 percent from the field. Whenever their offense bogged down, or they needed a big basket, Jones delivered. She had what ended up being the game-winner against South Carolina in the Final Four, and was the leading scorer in the title game with 17 points.
Seven of them came in the fourth quarter, as she scored nearly all of Stanford's 11 points in the frame. In particular, her and-one with 2:24 remaining proved vital. That basket and free throw put the Cardinal up 54-50, and would be the last points they scored in the game.
For her efforts, Jones was named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player, and was honored as a member of the All-Tournament team. Jones is the first Stanford player to earn either honor since Nneka Ogwumike was named to the All-Tournament team in 2012.