March Madness: Who were the star players in the Stanford vs Arizona final?

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Stanford won their first NCAA title since 1992 as March Madness was brought to a conclusion. GiveMeSport Women looks at the action from last night’s final.

The final was an action-packed game between the favourites Stanford and the underdogs Arizona. It ended 54-53. Stanford started strong in the first quarter leading the scoreboard 16-8. Arizona’s performance was one of their best all season. Their ability to turn defence into attack with speed punished Stanford throughout the game. However, their inability to take advantage of the 21 turnovers arguably lost them the title.

The fourth quarter was the most intense period of the game. Stanford built a nine-point lead in the fourth quarter before cutting it with star guard Aari McDonald's 3-pointer.

With one minute remaining in the fourth quarter, Lexie Hull lost the ball to the in-form McDonald, who was illegally blocked by Williams. She failed to convert the first free throw but buried home the second.

With just three points separating the two sides, the Wildcats stole the ball and are fouled once again, but this time McDonald clinically converted both free throws. After a timeout, Jones answered with a three-pointer, with 2:24 left on the clock.

Another timeout, which saw the Cardinal not get a shot off, allowed Arizona one more chance with 6.1 seconds left. McDonald's contested shot from the top of the key bounced off the rim. The buzzer light went off and the Stanford players stormed mid-court in celebration. An emotional McDonald was immediately consoled by her coach.

This was the second time the teams have met. During the regular season, Stanford rolled past Arizona both times, winning by double digits in each game. It was the Wildcats' first national title appearance – their previous best performance was the Sweet 16.

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The all-Pac-12 final was the first for the conference in men's or women's basketball history since Tara VanDerveer and Stanford claimed the crown in 1992. This conference's last appearance in the championship game was in 2010, when the Cardinal fell to UConn. In the women's game it's the seventh championship game featuring teams from the same conference. The last was in 2017 when South Carolina won its first championship over Mississippi State.

Although Stanford has history on its side, Arizona has been developing under coach Adia Barnes, who became the fourth black woman to lead her team to the championship game, following C. Vivian Stringer, Dawn Staley, and Carolyn Peck.

Barnes became the second Division I women's basketball coach in history to lead her team to the championship game in her first NCAA tournament as head coach. When she was a player, Arizona's deepest tournament run was to the Sweet 16.

Tara VanDerveer makes history

The Hall of Fame coach, Tara VanDerveer, took over as head coach at Stanford in 1985-86 and won her first NCAA championship in 1990. She has won 24 Pac-12 regular-season championships. The dramatic win against Arizona meant that VanDerveer is now tied with Baylor's Kim Mulkey as they both have three NCAA titles each. They trail UConn's Geno Auriemma's 11 and Summitt's eight. VanDerveer's 1,099th career win moves her past late Tennessee coach, Pat Summitt, for the most in Division I women's basketball history, and she now has 973 at Stanford.

The win meant a lot to Stanford fans. Not only have they had to wait 29 years for a women’s NCAA title, but they have been agonisingly close in recent years. They finished in five consecutive Final Fours from 2008 to 2012, losing in 2008 and 2010 championship games to Tennessee and UConn.

The title win elucidates that the Cardinal are now back on top of women's basketball and ends their 29-year wait for an NCAA trophy. This was the longest title drought for any Division I coach in any sport. The next longest gap is 17 years - Muffet McGraw from 2001 to 2018 at Notre Dame.

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Stars from the final

Arizona star, Aari McDonald, led all scorers with 22 points. She added three rebounds and two assists. McDonald, who followed her coach from Washington as a transfer, has been a huge reason for the team's success.

The 5-foot-6 guard has been the main catalyst for her team’s success throughout the competition. Potentially, they would have not made it this far without her. No doubt her performances in the tournament will lift her as a top WNBA draft prospect.

Shaina Pennington came off the bench to add 15 points and 7 rebounds for the Wildcats. Her speed and transition game kept Arizona in the second half. However, this was ultimately not enough as Stanford left with the title.

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Arizona lacked the offensive prowess to keep up with Stanford. After McDonald, their top prospect, the Wildcats looked to players like Cate Reese and Sam Thomas, but they were ineffective. Reese netted four points and Thomas only grabbed seven rebounds.

For Stanford, it was sophomore Haley Jones, who was named the final's most outstanding player, who took control of the game and scored 17 points, hitting them at key moments. She also got six rebounds in a dominant night for Stanford.

Jones led the way, but freshman Cameron Brink chipped in with 10 points and six rebounds. Lexie Hull extended her tournament winning streak with a 10-point, 10-rebound. Off the bench, Ashten Prechtel had seven points, eight rebounds, and three assists. Kiana Williams, the Cardinal’s point guard, also contributed by scoring five points. The win meant that much more to Williams, as they prevailed in her hometown.

The underdog team, Arizona, caught the nation's attention and hearts and came close to winning the programme's first NCAA championship, but Stanford were the deserved winners. It hasn’t been smooth sailing for the winners – VanDerveer and the Cardinal have had a difficult season.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced the team to fly for nearly 10 weeks, spending 86 days in hotels during the season. For VanDerveer’s team: “It was a long, very difficult journey being on the road, sleeping in hotels, living out of your bag. It’s just a lot.” But don’t leave empty handed. They will be taking the NCAA trophy back to the west coast.

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