By Arnie Leshin
Once, twice, within a span of three days, the Stanford women survived buzzer-beating defeats before winning their first national basketball championship since 1992.
And on Saturday night in the men’s Final Four at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, the unexpected nearly happened when 11th-seeded UCLA came within a last-second basket of stunning overall top-seeded, undefeated, 15-point favorite Gonzaga, with the Zags then advancing to tonight’s title game against No. 1-seeded Baylor via sophomore Jaylen Suggs’ almost midcourt buzzer bucket in overtime to escape 93-90.
As for the overall No.1-seeded Cardinal, its quest for its initial championship in 29 years was almost wiped out when No. 1-seeded South Carolina, behind by a point, twice missed layups after stealing the ball with 8:03remaining. That’s right, junior guard Destanni Henderson swiped the loose ball, drove to the basket and missed the layup, then 6-foot-5 All American Aliyah Boston missed the follow-up as the buzzer sounded.
Then in Sunday’s 54-53 title game squeaker at the Alamodome in San Antonio against rejuvenated 3rd-seeded Pac12 rival Arizona, the Cardinal almost suffered the same fate when after giving up the ball via the shot clock, the Wildcats called a time out also behind by one point, and with about everyone in the no fans allowed venue knowing the ball was going to sophomore Aari McDonald, a 5-6 bundle of versatility, and then surrounded by three defenders, caught the pass at midcourt, wheeled and flung the ball up from beyond the foul line, but it caromed off the rim as the buzzer went off.
She had gotten her side to 54-53 by converting three-of-four free throws after scoring 33 against Indiana and 28 versus UConn.
Close, both games close, the one against the Gamecocks more probable, and the one versus Arizona a stunning surprise after the Wildcats (21-6) upset No.1-seed Connecticut in the semis the same night. It was back-to-back celebrations just as the final buzzer rang out, but Stanford (31-2) will take it.
It was the third NCAA title for its head coach Tara Vanderveer, but this one was a long wait after she last won in ’92 and 1990, and first time in the final since the 2010 loss to UConn.
“I’m proud of our girls,” the 67-year-old Hall of Famer Vanderveer said, “but I must give credit to Arizona coach Adia Barnes for turning the program around, getting this far for the first time, and playing a whale of a game tonight. You win easy ones, but for us we had to get past two excellent teams to finally hoist the championship trophy again,”
And Hall of Famer Bill Walton, an All-America at UCLA, was still bragging about the Pac12 after the Bruins almost slammed the door on Gonzaga’s quest for a first national championship, and following the women’s final matching two Pac12 schools.
“It’s the conference of champions,” was what Walton always said while doing the commentary on west coast college games on national television. UCLA almost unexpectedly won its 12th national title and Stanford got past a pair of tough tussles to emerge victorious, not bad for big Luke’s favorite conference.
After Stanford quickly opened up a 12-3 lead and Barnes called a time out, the Wildcats made a short run to cut the gap to 12-8, then trailed 16-8 after one quarter. At halftime, it was 31-24 Cardinal. And after three quarters, Stanford was up 43-40 and Arizona was not going away despite a tough night for the 5-6 McDonald as she scored the game-high 22 points but was only 5-for-20 from the field. Off the bench came Wildcats’ sophomore Shaina Pellington and she contributed a career-high 15 points and grabbed seven boards.
Down by 10 points with 10 minutes left, Arizona got to within 43-40 after going on a 9-2 run, but a Jones reverse-pivot layup followed by a steal and another layup brought the lead to 49-40. Jones turned in 17 points, took down 11 rebounds, and was the tournament Most Valuable Player. Junior teammate Lexi Hull added 10 points and the same number of rebounds, and senior Kiana Williams, a 5-8 guard and a San Antonio native, scored an even dozen and dished out six assists.
It was Arizona’s first time in the national tournament since 2005 and it didn’t disappoint, especially taken favored Stanford to the final buzzer.
The teams had met twice during the regular season and the Wildcats lost by double digits each time. They began this season at No. 7 in the national polls, and moved up to a program high as sixth for a few weeks. Then they dominated 4th-seeded Indiana after the Hoosiers ousted No. 1-seeded North Carolina State, and showed UConn the exit.