When it comes to Arizona and Stanford, familiarity doesn’t breed contempt. The admiration between head coaches Tara VanDerveer and Adia Barnes is well-known. What it does breed for the Cardinal is the ability to be prepared for the Wildcats’ defense.
A common refrain from previous opponents was that they had never experienced anything like the Arizona ball pressure. The Cardinal had done so multiple times over the past several years, and they have been very successful simply because of depth, talent, and experienced leaders. Having the coach with the most wins in Division I history doesn’t hurt, either.
Stanford had also been effective at limiting Aari McDonald this season. It was the story once again Sunday as the Cardinal won the national title 54-53. McDonald fired a contested shot at the buzzer over three Stanford defenders but it was off the mark.
“It doesn’t come down to the last thing,” Barnes said. “What I look at why we lost the game: second-chance points, turning them over and not converting on the turnovers, and just making free throws. So that’s the difference in the game. Down the stretch, we missed some key free throws. So, if we would have done those things, we would have won even shooting 28 percent and 6 for 22 from the three. So we had a chance because we played some very good defense today.”
McDonald finished her Arizona career without ever scoring fewer than 10 points by putting up 22 points, doing much of her damage from the free-throw line. She went just 5 for 20 from the field, but almost all of her buckets were from distance. She was 4-for-9 from beyond the arc and added three rebounds, two assists, and two steals.
Shaina Pellington had her biggest game since donning an Arizona jersey with 15 points on 5-for-12 shooting. She also had seven rebounds and three steals against just a single turnover.
She was the only other Wildcat to score in double figures.
“Shaina had her best game of the year,” Barnes said. “She came in today gave us a spark and played her heart out—defensively, offensively. Seven rebounds, three steals. Shaina was phenomenal. Without Shaina playing the way she did, it wouldn’t have even come down to the last possession.”
Things could not have gotten off on a worse foot for Arizona. They shot 3 for 19 in the first quarter. On the other end, Stanford was 7 for 16.
Still, the Wildcats were only down by eight after the first 10 minutes, and they were not giving up.
They went on a run spurred by that “Arizona defense,” capping it with two free throws, a steal, and a bucket from Pellington to put them up by one with 4:53 left in the first half.
Another run by Stanford sent the teams into the locker rooms with the Cardinal up 31-24.
The game of runs would continue. Stanford building a lead, Arizona reeling them back in. Whether it was Pellington with her three steals, McDonald with her two, or Bendu Yeaney with a team-high five, the Wildcats kept turning the Cardinal over.
They just struggled to convert, getting just 12 points off 21 turnovers. Yet it was a three-point game heading into the final quarter.
With under a minute left, McDonald stepped to the free-throw line. She sank one of two for a three-point game. Another steal by Pellington and a dish to McDonald. Back to the line for two. One-point game. Another Stanford turnover. Six seconds to go.
It was not to be. A desperation shot from long-distance clanked off the back rim.
“I knew there was about 6.1 seconds, maybe,” McDonald said. “I got denied hard. I tried to turn the corner. They sent three at me. I took a tough contested shot but it didn’t fall.”
Barnes said there was never any thought given to anyone else taking that shot. McDonald was the one doing most of the scoring and she was why they were there to begin with.
The Wildcats did not walk away with a title, but they won the hearts of much of women’s basketball. It was fitting for a team that has brought great women’s basketball back to Tucson and given hope for the future.
“Aari is passing the baton to Shaina. She is returning,” Barnes said. “We’ll have some good players returning. Lauren (Ware) is a freshman, Cate’s returning, Bendu’s returning. Aari’s not going to be here and possibly Trinity (Baptiste) and Sam (Thomas), but we have a good nucleus. And they have this experience and they’ve had a taste of the success. So now they can be the leaders next year for everybody else and show what the standard is and what it takes to get here.”
That standard was set by a group of women led to the top by the best women’s basketball player to ever wear cardinal and navy.
“Aari, hands down, no doubt, is the best player in Arizona’s history,” Barnes said. “She was a lot better than I ever was. And the fact that I held those records for so long, it doesn’t mean a lot because it means we weren’t that good for a long time. So Aari just shattered everything. Better player than I could have ever been. Led us to the national championship game when no one would have thought. So Aari was phenomenal. Definitely the best player in Arizona history. And I’m proud that I coached her. I’m proud she chose me twice. I’m proud she came to Arizona to do something special when we weren’t good.”
Arizona is good now. It’s up to the next group to take it to the next level.