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Improved Arizona and Stanford ready to rematch in national championship game

Arizona v Connecticut Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

SAN ANTONIO — It’s fitting that Stanford is all that stands in Arizona’s way of a national championship.

The Wildcats have built their NCAA Tournament run around the motto that no one believes in them. Now they can exact their pent-up fury on the No. 1-seeded Cardinal, who swept them in the regular season and are heavily favored to win again Sunday evening.

“This is a tremendous opportunity for us, but it’s just another game,” Arizona coach Adia Barnes said. “It means a little more, but at this point we’ve gotten this far and we believe, so you’ve just got to go out and play.”

While the Cardinal won both regular-season matchups by double figures, including an 81-54 drubbing in Tucson, the Wildcats believe they are a different team this time around. For one thing, they are shooting the ball with better proficiency.

The Cardinal have stymied the Wildcats by packing the paint and forcing them—especially Aari McDonald—to take contested shots over their length. Arizona shot 28 percent in the first two matchups, including a ghastly 11 for 46 mark from 3.

The Wildcats are typically not a hot 3-point shooting team to begin with, but they have flipped the script in San Antonio, where they have made 42 percent of their 3s, catching fire at just the right time.

McDonald has been otherworldly, yes, but secondary shooters like Helena Pueyo, Trinity Baptiste, Bendu Yeaney and Sam Thomas have been firing away with confidence too.

Maybe Stanford will think twice about sagging off them this time.

“Now that we’re shooting the ball better, it’s a little harder to do that,” Barnes said. “But I think they’re still gonna do that. That’s how they are. If you’re not shooting a good percentage, they’re not guarding you. But I always tell our team, you’re open for a reason, so go be a screener or do something else.”

Like clean the glass. Stanford has posted a combined +26 rebounding margin against the Wildcats this season. Arizona is undersized and will never be elite on the boards, but has steadily improved in that department. They outrebounded Indiana and UConn in the previous two rounds.

Baptiste and Cate Reese have shown they can bang with some of the best frontcourts in the country. McDonald, despite being 5-foot-6 at best, has stepped up there too, averaging 8.3 rebounds over her last four games in addition to scoring 30 points a night.

“They’re not a one-trick pony,” Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer warned. “They have some great players around her and they’re all playing very well. Arizona moves the ball and what I noticed about them is they’re patient. They look for good shots. And as good as Aari is, she’s not a selfish player. She creates for other players, and some players are creators and some are finishers.”

These teams can rehearse the other’s playbook at this point, but both coaches expect to see some new wrinkles Sunday. Barnes believes Arizona has an element that even a master scout like VanDerveer can’t account for.

“It’s hard to prepare for momentum,” she said. “I think we’re pretty hot right now, I don’t think we played our best basketball game by any means yesterday, but I think we were solid. And I think that we’re a better team than we were a month ago, so I like our chances.”

Arizona winning their first national championship would be a story of peaking at the right time and proving they belong at the same table as the nation’s elite programs. Stanford’s would be about overcoming unprecedented adversity to end a 29-year title drought.

Rigid COVID-19 restrictions in Santa Clara County forced them to flee from Palo Alto from late November to late January. For nine weeks, the Cardinal—or Nomads as they should be called—shuffled from bus to bus, hotel to hotel and airport to airport.

They won an uber-competitive Pac-12 anyway and have been the victors of 19 straight heading into the national championship game, a streak that dates back to late January when they were still playing “home” games in Santa Cruz.

“I feel like it’s kind of an advantage for us,” said freshman forward Cameron Brink. “When we were on the road for almost two months straight, other teams were at home. And when they came to the bubble in San Antonio, they didn’t really know what to expect and we knew what being stuck in hotels for weeks on end (felt like), so I think we’re lucky to have to have experienced that. And I feel like everything happens for a reason.”

Like Arizona, Stanford feels it’s playing its best basketball when it matters most.

“Arizona has improved and Stanford’s improved,” VanDerveer said. “Let’s see which team has improved more.”