Stanford Leads Arizona in Second Half of N.C.A.A. Women’s Final

The Cardinal and the Wildcats, both of the Pac-12 Conference, are playing the championship. The game is being televised on ESPN.,

LiveUpdated April 4, 2021, 7:48 p.m. ETApril 4, 2021, 7:48 p.m. ET

The Cardinal and the Wildcats, both of the Pac-12 Conference, are going back and forth in their championship game in the N.C.A.A. women’s tournament.

ImageStanford led 31-24 at halftime.
Stanford led 31-24 at halftime.Credit…Troy Taormina/USA Today Sports, via Reuters
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April 4, 2021, 7:48 p.m. ETApril 4, 2021, 7:48 p.m. ET

Marisa Ingemi

Haley Jones has taken over the second half with 10 points since the start of the third quarter. She’s led Stanford to a 6-0 start to the fourth.

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April 4, 2021, 7:45 p.m. ETApril 4, 2021, 7:45 p.m. ET
Haley Jones has helped Stanford keep a slight edge.
Haley Jones has helped Stanford keep a slight edge.Credit…Elsa/Getty Images

Stanford is just a quarter away from its first national title since 1992.

The Cardinal enter the fourth with a 43-40 lead. Arizona’s shooting has continued to struggle, and the Wildcats are now just 14 for 47 from the floor, 30 percent. Aari McDonald found a bit of her offense, but still has just 13 points after shooting 3 for 15.

Arizona went on a run late after Lexie Hull was injured taking a foul on McDonald. McDonald took her third foul of the game a few moments later, but the 7-0 run for the Wildcats kept up their momentum.

Haley Jones, now with 10 points, extended the Cardinal’s lead back to 10 midway through the third. Hull has posted 10 points and 8 rebounds.

Stanford has held the Wildcats offense down for most of the game, but has been perhaps even more dominant on the boards. The Cardinal have outrebounded Arizona, 38-21.

That has led to 11 second chance points for the Cardinal, and the Wildcats have none. Stanford, however, has turned it over 14 times.

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April 4, 2021, 7:34 p.m. ETApril 4, 2021, 7:34 p.m. ET

Natalie Weiner

Stanford’s Lexie Hull is slow to get up after trying to take a charge from Aari McDonald and getting called for the foul instead. She’s replaced on the floor by her twin sister, Lacie.

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April 4, 2021, 7:26 p.m. ETApril 4, 2021, 7:26 p.m. ET

Natalie Weiner

The Wildcats haven’t found an answer for Stanford’s two tall guards. 6-foot Lexie Hull has 10 points, and 6-foot-1 Haley Jones has 8 points, making 50 percent of her shots so far. Stanford leads, 41-31.

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April 4, 2021, 7:19 p.m. ETApril 4, 2021, 7:19 p.m. ET

Marisa Ingemi

Stanford is outrebounding Arizona 28-14, 22 of those coming from the defensive side. Lexie Hull and Ashton Prechtel each have six boards.

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April 4, 2021, 7:05 p.m. ETApril 4, 2021, 7:05 p.m. ET
Stanford allowed Arizona to come back in the first half, but led by 7 points at halftime.
Stanford allowed Arizona to come back in the first half, but led by 7 points at halftime.Credit…Eric Gay/Associated Press

Behind a 16-4 run, Arizona found its shot in the second quarter. Stanford, though, wasn’t going to be held down for long, even against the Arizona defense.

The Wildcats defense stepped up and allowed the offense room to find its footing, holding Stanford to 4 points in the quarter before a late run. The Cardinal took a 31-24 lead into halftime.

Cate Reese scored two early baskets to bring the Wildcats back within 4. From there, the Arizona offense woke up for a spurt, but it couldn’t keep pace.

Ashton Prechtel had 7 points on 3-of-6 shooting while Lexie Hull kept a hot pace from the first quarter, finishing the half with 8 points and 6 rebounds.

Aari McDonald shot just 2-for-11 after a 1-for-6 start, missing two free throws as well late in the second. A mid-quarter go-ahead layup from Shaina Pellington gave the Wildcats their first lead since it was 3-2 in the first, but the Cardinal scored 11 consecutive points after that.

The Cardinal have 10 turnovers, but Arizona hasn’t taken advantage, with just four points off turnovers.

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April 4, 2021, 6:49 p.m. ETApril 4, 2021, 6:49 p.m. ET

Marisa Ingemi

Arizona has gone on a 16-4 run after Stanford had jumped ahead early with a 12-0 scoring streak in the first. The Wildcats, who finished the first quarter shooting 16 percent, have improved to 31 percent.

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April 4, 2021, 6:48 p.m. ETApril 4, 2021, 6:48 p.m. ET

Natalie Weiner

Shaina Pellington gives Arizona a lead, 21-20, with a steal and breakaway layup.

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April 4, 2021, 6:46 p.m. ETApril 4, 2021, 6:46 p.m. ET

Marisa Ingemi

Arizona has outscored Stanford 11-4 in the second quarter, paced by Cate Reese’s 4 points early in the quarter.

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April 4, 2021, 6:39 p.m. ETApril 4, 2021, 6:39 p.m. ET
Lexie Hull had 4 points for Stanford in the first quarter.
Lexie Hull had 4 points for Stanford in the first quarter.Credit…Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

That didn’t look at all like how Arizona opened on Friday.

Stanford has taken it to the underdog Wildcats so far, opening the first quarter with a 16-8 lead, paced by an early 12-0 run over more than three minutes.

Lexie Hull scored the first 4 points of the game and she’s already added 4 rebounds, as well. Her Cardinal are shooting 44 percent.

The real story so far, though, is the Wildcats’ lack of shooting. For all the hype around their defense, it has been the Cardinal defense holding Arizona down to 15.8 percent from the floor, going just 3-for-19.

Stanford has scoring from five different players, while Arizona has only gotten baskets from two. McDonald has two steals, but the Wildcats haven’t been able to generate any offense out of it.

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April 4, 2021, 6:36 p.m. ETApril 4, 2021, 6:36 p.m. ET

Natalie Weiner

The Cardinal are showing their depth early: five different Stanford players made field goals in the first quarter.

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April 4, 2021, 6:34 p.m. ETApril 4, 2021, 6:34 p.m. ET

Marisa Ingemi

Stanford has turned the ball over three times in a three minute span, but the Wildcats, behind two steals from Aari McDonald, haven’t been able to generate any of that into offense.

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April 4, 2021, 6:33 p.m. ETApril 4, 2021, 6:33 p.m. ET

Natalie Weiner

After her 26 point performance in the Final Four, Arizona’s Aari McDonald has made just one field goal so far thanks to stifling defense from her co-Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, Stanford’s Anna Wilson.

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April 4, 2021, 6:31 p.m. ETApril 4, 2021, 6:31 p.m. ET

Gillian Brassil

Among the cardboard cut-outs adorning the bleachers, a handful are of Stanford guard Kiana Williams being hoisted by her supporters. The senior, who is from San Antonio, has had a posse of about 60 friends and family members here throughout the tournament. “We did win a national championship in Knoxville, Tennessee, for our senior point guard Jennifer Azzi,” Stanford Coach Tara VanDerveer told reporters on Saturday of the first time the Cardinal took home the national title in 1990. “And so it would be fun to do that for Ki being down here.”

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April 4, 2021, 6:24 p.m. ETApril 4, 2021, 6:24 p.m. ET

Natalie Weiner

Stanford’s 3-point shots are already falling — both 6-foot-5 Ashten Prechtel and 5-foot-8 Kiana Williams have gotten a bucket from behind the arc.

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April 4, 2021, 6:23 p.m. ETApril 4, 2021, 6:23 p.m. ET

Marisa Ingemi

Stanford has gone on a 10-0 run to open the game, with 4 points from Lexie Hull with 3 rebounds. The Cardinal lead Arizona 12-3 going into the first media timeout behind 56 percent shooting. Arizona is just 1 for 6.

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April 4, 2021, 6:17 p.m. ETApril 4, 2021, 6:17 p.m. ET

Natalie Weiner

Between the Cardinal and Wildcats fans, there’s a lot of red at the Alamodome tonight. But among the cardboard cutouts, there are two rows of women in white: the entire U.S. women’s national soccer team purchased spots to show support, alongside fellow sports stars like Candace Parker and Peyton Manning.

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April 4, 2021, 6:00 p.m. ETApril 4, 2021, 6:00 p.m. ET
Credit…Michelle Kondrich

This year’s N.C.A.A. women’s basketball tournament has been a weekslong display of athletic intrigue and talent — and a showcase of the indignities, like a flimsily stocked workout area publicized online by the Oregon forward Sedona Prince, that players and coaches say prove that their sport is still seen and treated as second-class.

“It was so blatant, and it pulled back the curtain and it allowed people to say, ‘This is a systemic problem,” said Cori Close, the coach at U.C.L.A.

“People who were intimately involved in college athletics were not shocked, but they were deeply disappointed,” said Heather Lyke, the athletic director at Pittsburgh and a member of one of the N.C.A.A.’s most influential management groups. “They’re thankful that the discrepancies were captured and displayed and that people reacted the way they did, which was appalled or outraged or frustrated. People didn’t dismiss it.”

That is partly because women’s basketball is a powerful force in American athletics, especially compared with what it once was. These days, the sport’s luminaries can be household names, its games collectively draw millions of fans in person and on television, and the inequities that emerged from San Antonio drew swift attention online and in Congress. But a sport that has spent years contemplating ways to break through — and how much it should stand as a brand of its own — is finding it difficult to outrun a history of sexism, infighting and media rights deals that overwhelmingly tilt eyeballs and money toward men’s basketball.

The debacle in San Antonio cast a harsh light toward the N.C.A.A., which was already under severe strain because of the coronavirus pandemic and a crush of public and political pressure to change longstanding rules that would allow players to profit off their fame and benefit in some way from the ballooning financial might of college sports. Now the association is facing doubts over the depth of its commitment to one of its marquee offerings.

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April 4, 2021, 5:52 p.m. ETApril 4, 2021, 5:52 p.m. ET
After cutting short its 2020-21 season because of disruptions during the pandemic, the Dixie State basketball team is back at practice in St. George, Utah, preparing for next season.
After cutting short its 2020-21 season because of disruptions during the pandemic, the Dixie State basketball team is back at practice in St. George, Utah, preparing for next season. Credit…Joe Buglewicz for The New York Times

As the women’s and men’s tournaments wrap up, teams have been lauded for their perseverance in playing during the pandemic. Hundreds of games were postponed or canceled during the regular season; some teams paused their seasons for weeks; and those who advanced to the N.C.A.A. tournaments have been isolated in hotels to avoid contracting the virus.

But not everyone made it to the finish line. Or even the starting blocks. The eight Ivy League colleges were among those that never started, their presidents deeming sports too great a health risk. Others reached the same decision after the season had begun. Including the Ivies, 27 Division I women’s teams and 13 on the men’s side canceled their seasons early because of concerns about the virus, according to the N.C.A.A.

Among the women’s teams were prominent names — Duke, Virginia and Vanderbilt. Varied circumstances contributed to the decisions to cancel: Southern Methodist’s players had previously accused their coach, whose contract was not renewed last month, of abusive behavior; a Vanderbilt player developed a heart condition linked to the virus; Cal State Northridge did not have enough players.

There appeared to be a common factor: The decision was not simple.

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April 4, 2021, 5:40 p.m. ETApril 4, 2021, 5:40 p.m. ET
Arizona has held opponents back offensively during this N.C.A.A. tournament.
Arizona has held opponents back offensively during this N.C.A.A. tournament.Credit…Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

Aari McDonald deserves significant credit for her defensive prowess that matches her offensive game in leading Arizona to the national title game.

There’s a lot of strong defense too, though, that comes from the rest of the Wildcats roster.

On Friday night, Arizona held UConn to 59 points on 36 percent shooting, and the Wildcats have held seven of their last eight opposing teams under 40 percent.

“Definitely you’ve seen that on display tonight,” McDonald said. “UConn, that’s a powerhouse. I mean, it doesn’t get any better than that.”

With McDonald leading, other elements of the defense have had chances to succeed. The Wildcats had the seventh best defense in the nation all season. Cate Reese had three steals against the Huskies, and Lauren Ware had a block off the bench.

In a 10-point win over UConn, 12 of Arizona’s points came off turnovers. Behind McDonald, the rest of the Wildcats defense has flourished.

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April 4, 2021, 5:15 p.m. ETApril 4, 2021, 5:15 p.m. ET
Arizona Coach Adia Barnes with her team in the second half of its semifinal against UConn.
Arizona Coach Adia Barnes with her team in the second half of its semifinal against UConn.Credit…Kirby Lee/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

Going into Friday night’s semifinal against No. 1 seed UConn, Arizona Coach Adia Barnes talked about how confidence might play a factor for her opponents, including Coach Geno Auriemma.

“It’s really important because UConn has been there so many times,” Barnes had said. “Coach Auriemma is a legend. It’s kind of a shock when he doesn’t go to the Final Four and win a championship. He’s just done an amazing job. One of the best coaches there is. They’re a confident team because it’s chartered territory. It’s unchartered for us. This is something they’re used to.”

After the game, though, it was Auriemma who said he felt his young group was too immature for the moment. That certainly was a factor, as the older Wildcats held on at the end, but Barnes’ coaching deserved credit as well given how she managed her star, Aari McDonald, and the other players around her.

After reaching the championship game, Barnes said her success was particularly important because only a few Black women have coached teams to the Final Four and beyond.

“I represent a lot of different things, but representation matters, opportunities matter. When we’re given an opportunity, we can flourish,” Barnes said. “I was given an opportunity by an athletic director that believed in a young coach that had only been coaching five years. This is only my fifth-year as a head coach. I was a five-year assistant, a 13-year pro.”

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April 4, 2021, 4:30 p.m. ETApril 4, 2021, 4:30 p.m. ET
Some observers believe that Charli Collier of Texas could be selected with the top pick in the W.N.B.A. draft.
Some observers believe that Charli Collier of Texas could be selected with the top pick in the W.N.B.A. draft.Credit…Morry Gash/Associated Press

Some of the players who have starred in this N.C.A.A. tournament are ready for a step up to the W.N.B.A.

On Saturday, players who were eliminated before the Final Four faced a deadline to declare for the draft (those in the Final Four get an extra 48 hours after their teams finish their season). The deadline has prompted a big decision, because athletes are being granted an extra year of college eligibility because of the coronavirus pandemic.

On Sunday, the league released a list of 52 names of players who have declared themselves for the draft.

Those already declared who had strong tournaments include Charli Collier of Texas, the projected top pick, Louisville’s Dana Evans, U.C.L.A.’s Michaela Onyenwere and Baylor’s DiDi Richards. All are expected to be high selections in the two-round draft.

Out of the Final Four teams, UConn’s Evina Westbrook and South Carolina’s LeLe Grissett could declare, along with Arizona senior Aari McDonald. McDonald especially has raised her draft stock by taking Arizona to the national championship game and scoring big in her last three games.

Maryland players Katie Benzan and Chloe Bibby were possibilities who didn’t declare, along with Indiana’s Ali Patberg.

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April 4, 2021, 3:45 p.m. ETApril 4, 2021, 3:45 p.m. ET
Stanford won the Pac-12 Conference tournament to solidify its position going into the N.C.A.A. tournament.
Stanford won the Pac-12 Conference tournament to solidify its position going into the N.C.A.A. tournament.Credit…Ethan Miller/Getty Images

For all the hype around the Big Ten this season, it’s a team from the Pac-12 Conference that will hoist a national championship trophy.

“In the Pac-12 we’ve been saying all along we have the best teams in the country, and to have two Pac-12 teams speaks for itself,” Arizona coach Adia Barnes said. “Stanford won the Pac-12 championship and we were second. Both of us in the Final Four and championship game, it means a lot for our conference.”

It will be the first time since 1992 that a national title will come from the Pac-12, which, aside from Stanford’s tremendous run this season, did not appear to be a serious threat from multiple teams. The Big Ten, led by Maryland along with Michigan, Michigan State, Rutgers, Iowa, and an upstart Indiana, garnered more national attention.

Among those Big Ten teams, only Indiana made it deeper than the round of 16, when it upended a No. 1 seed, North Carolina State. Arizona knocked out the Hoosiers in the round of 8.

The Big 12 had some strong showings with Baylor and Texas, but they were eliminated before the Final Four.

In the regular season for the last conference standing, Stanford finished first in the regular season while Arizona finished second. Stanford won the conference tournament, and also beat the Wildcats twice in the regular season — both times by double digits.

“I’m really proud of the Pac-12 to have two teams in the national championship game,” Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer said. “You know, this is not something that a lot of people could have imagined, 10 years ago, 15 years ago, 20 years ago. And it’s really, really exciting.”

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April 4, 2021, 3:08 p.m. ETApril 4, 2021, 3:08 p.m. ET
Against UConn in the Final Four, Aari McDonald of Arizona was the biggest star on the floor.
Against UConn in the Final Four, Aari McDonald of Arizona was the biggest star on the floor.Credit…Elsa/Getty Images

Aari McDonald, the Pac-12 player of the year, has owned the Alamodome’s floors, scoring at least 26 points in each of the past three games. She is lithe yet powerful, cutting through defenses and outrunning those who try to contain her.

While she is often most effective when penetrating defenses, she is also dangerous from the outside: McDonald has been shooting almost 42 percent from beyond the arc in the postseason.

And she is a formidable defender, often stealing the ball and converting turnovers into points. She has also had more than five defensive rebounds in each of the past four games.

“She’s really underrated on defense,” Barnes said after the national semifinal. “I thought in my mind she should have been the national defensive Player of the Year. There was no other player that impacts the game on both ends of the floor more.”

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April 4, 2021, 3:08 p.m. ETApril 4, 2021, 3:08 p.m. ET
Stanford's semifinal against South Carolina was quite physical. The final against Arizona will likely be similar.
Stanford’s semifinal against South Carolina was quite physical. The final against Arizona will likely be similar.Credit…Elsa/Getty Images

Both of these teams employ a lot of ball pressure and have the length to cover the floor.

Stanford and Arizona are the best in the Pac-12 at defending shots. Arizona held UConn, with its typically high-octane offense, to its lowest-scoring game of the season in the national semifinals. Stanford has been protecting the rim with a combination of Cameron Brink, Fran Belibi and Anna Wilson.

“Usually defensively one of our strengths is our guard defense,” Stanford Coach Tara VanDerveer said. “Anna Wilson has been a lockdown defender for us all year.”

And neither team is afraid to foul or be fouled.

“Trapping Aari is very difficult,” Arizona Coach Adia Barnes said of Arizona’s leading contributor on Friday, Aari McDonald. “I think she did a good job of drawing fouls. Aari got fouled nine times in the game.”

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April 4, 2021, 3:07 p.m. ETApril 4, 2021, 3:07 p.m. ET
Haley Jones is one of Stanford's sharpshooting 3-point threats.
Haley Jones is one of Stanford’s sharpshooting 3-point threats.Credit…Morry Gash/Associated Press

With solid defenders congesting the paint, it is a good thing neither team fears shooting from outside.

Though it has taken Arizona a bit longer to get comfortable shooting from deep, the Wildcats have landed 42 3-pointers in this tournament, shooting 34 percent. Stanford set a record in its win over South Carolina for made 3-pointers in the tournament with 56. UConn set the previous record of 54 in 2015. The Cardinal were 5 of 8 on 3-pointers on Friday night.

And Stanford has plenty of players who can shoot: Kiana Williams is one of the Cardinal’s most reliable shooters, landing a 3-pointer in every game she had played since early January until Friday night. Despite that lapse, leading scorers Haley Jones and Lexie Hull were perfect on 3-point shots.

“My teammates see me shoot at practice, I feel confident,” Jones said after winning the semifinal. “They just kind of instill their confidence in me when I don’t have it in myself.”

Though Stanford has prevailed in two previous matchups with Arizona this season, Arizona Coach Adia Barnes is unafraid after coming this far.

“They’ve beat us twice this year: They have to beat us a third time,” she said.

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