In Razor-thin Finals, Stanford Women's Basketball Wins 2021 National Championship

On Sunday, April 4, the Stanford Cardinal held off the Arizona Wildcats to win the NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball National Championship by a score of 54-53. For the first time in tournament history, two teams from the Pacific-12 (Pac-12) Conference battled to cut down the nets. 

From the start, it was obvious that the national championship would be a choppy game, with elite defense from both sides stifling offensive flow and forcing numerous turnovers. Stanford, led by the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, Haley Jones, claimed an early lead in the first quarter. Arizona found its shot in the second quarter but was unable to fully contain the overall No. 1 seed’s deep bench, heading into the half with a 31-24 deficit. 

In the second half, Arizona’s stellar defender Bendu Yeaney came up with five steals to kickstart the Wildcat’s comeback. Although the Cardinal built up a nine-point lead in the fourth quarter, Aari McDonald willed her team back into the game with a 7-0 run that brought the Wildcats within one on a superb three-pointer. Stanford’s defense was stifling, however, as Anna Wilson held McDonald — who had averaged 30 points a game since the Sweet Sixteen — to 22 points on 5 of 21 shooting from the field. Wilson and McDonald were each named Co-Defensive Player of the Year in the Pac-12.

Meanwhile, Stanford had no response for six-foot-one guard Haley Jones and the depth of the Cardinal, which included Lexie Hull, Cameron Brink and Ashten Prechtel, who each scored in double digits. While Arizona’s Shaina Pellington made a huge impact off the bench, scoring 15 points and picking up seven rebounds and three steals, she was the only Wildcat who scored in double digits other than McDonald. In another point of distinction between the two teams, Stanford claimed a 47-29 advantage in rebounds, which yielded 11 second-chance points compared to Arizona’s zero. 

In a fitting finish for a tournament full of close games and last-second heartbreaks, the game came down to the final 6.1 seconds. After Stanford committed a shot clock violation with a one-point lead, Arizona had one play to bring home their first-ever title. The Wildcats inbounded to their superstar, Pac-12 Player of the Year Aari McDonald, and three Stanford players immediately swarmed her outside the three-point line. Surrounded by defenders, McDonald hurled a last-ditch heave at the buzzer that clanged off the back iron, securing the Cardinal their first title since 1992. 

After the game, Stanford Coach Tara VanDerveer, the winningest coach in women’s college basketball, shared she felt that her team did not play its best, while senior captain Kiana Williams exclaimed, “That’s a great basketball team we just beat.” 

Arizona Head Coach Adia Barnes, who became the fourth ever Black woman to lead her team to the national championship game, tweeted, “My team … my heart! This hurt but they played their hearts out and that’s all that I can ask for. I’m so proud of them and what we accomplished this year!” 

Stanford, a highly pedigreed program, took home their third title, while Arizona had not been to the NCAA tournament since 2005. Despite their contrasting program histories, each team had to fight their way into the championship game. Stanford won the 2021 Pac-12 title over UCLA by over 20 points. Arizona lost to Stanford twice in 2021 and became the underdogs throughout the tournament. 

This season proved historical for Stanford on more than one account. Since Santa Clara County, Calif. prohibited contact sports due to the ongoing pandemic, The Cardinal lived out of suitcases for over two months. The team stayed in Las Vegas and played their “home” games in Santa Cruz, 45 miles away from Palo Alto (their actual home). Stanford players shared that their nomadic season brought them closer and reaffirmed their love for the game. Senior Kiana Williams remarked, “We had to do that because that’s how bad we wanted to play.”

In order to even make it to the title game, Stanford eked out a win in their 14th Final Four against a fellow number one seed, the South Carolina Gamecocks, in another last-second thriller. Stanford won 66-65 to advance to their fifth title game. Jones led the Cardinal with 24 points, four rebounds, two assists, one steal and one block. Zia Cooke led the Gamecocks with 25 points while sophomore All-American Aliyah Boston posted a double-double with 11 points and 16 rebounds. 

Boston had to substitute in for offense and out on defense throughout the fourth quarter, as she had racked up four fouls. The absence of Boston, a six-foot-five defensive star, opened a driving lane to the basket for the Cardinal. Jones drove to the basket after picking up a loose ball and hitting an and-one jump shot with 32 seconds left. As the game wound down, Stanford inbounded the ball to first-year forward Cameron Brink, who, appearing as if she expected to be fouled, attempted to dribble out of a double team. Boston, off the bench at this point, stole the ball and fed it to her teammate Brea Beal, who went in for a layup. Her shot missed, bouncing right into the hands of the jumping Boston who tried and missed what would have been a game-winning putback. Cooke explained after the game, “It was in our hands, but we just came up short.”

After the heartbreaking loss, South Carolina Coach Dawn Staley reflected back on the final game of her own college career at the University of Virginia in the 1992 Final Four. In an eerily similar fashion, that game ended with a missed game-winner at the buzzer against none other than Tara VanDerveer, who was still coaching Stanford at the time. Stanford won that game with the same score, 66-65, and went on to claim the national title. Staley commented that Boston “will get over it.” She continued,  “Aliyah is a great player. Aliyah will come back stronger, better. If she’s ever put in this position again, she’ll knock it down.” 

While history seemingly repeated itself on one side of the bracket, Arizona carved a brand new path on the other side. Arizona made history throughout the tournament, advancing to their first Elite Eight, Final Four and championship game. 

In 1998, Adia Barnes, now Arizona head coach, was named Pac-12 Player of the Year and led the Wildcats to their first Sweet Sixteen. Taking over the program five years ago, she brought Aari McDonald, a first-year at the time, with her from the University of Washington. In Barnes’ first two years, the team finished with a winning percentage under .500, as McDonald had to sit out due to the transfer rules. VanDerveer has shared her admiration for Barnes, explaining, “I respect the fact that she took over a program that was at the bottom and she’s built them up.” As a number three seed in the tournament, people consistently underestimated the Wildcats, with many reporters mispronouncing McDonald’s first name and the NCAA omitting Arizona from the Final Four promo video

Not dismayed, Arizona turned the constant disrespect into fuel to take on basketball royalty Geno Auriemma and the UConn Huskies in the Final Four this year. This was UConn’s fourteenth consecutive Final Four game, aiming to take home their 12th national championship. A clear underdog, the Wildcats faced +13.5 betting odds. The Wildcats had only faced the Huskies once before: the 1998 Sweet Sixteen game. They were led by none other than Adia Barnes. 

The Wildcats pulled off perhaps the biggest upset of the tournament against top-seeded UConn in style, winning 69-59. Led by an outstanding end-to-end performance from McDonald, Arizona held a lead for the entire game. McDonald scored 26 points and provided a stifling defensive presence. 

Arizona held UConn to their season-low offensive performance, denying first-year phenom Paige Bueckers many high-quality looks at the basket. Bueckers finished the evening with 18 points on 5-13 from the floor. As UConn’s one bright spot in the game, junior guard Christyn Williams scored 20 points before fouling out in the fourth with 3:51 left. Williams’ fifth foul, a surprising call on a McDonald shot where Williams made no clear contact, incited outcry throughout the basketball world. 

After the game, UConn coach Geno Auriemma stated, “all the credit goes to Arizona. Aari McDonald, I said going into the game, I don’t think we’ve had to play against a guard as good as she is, and she proved it tonight. She just dominated the entire game start to finish. We pride ourselves on being pretty good at certain things. We had no answer for her.” McDonald ended her tournament with a spot on the all-tournament team. She was joined by Haley Jones (Stanford), Lexie Hull (Stanford), Paige Bueckers (UConn) and Zia Cooke (South Carolina). 

While McDonald and Arizona played their best game of the tournament in the Final Four, commentators and coaches alike reflected the same message after the championship game: Stanford performed just well enough to survive against the up-and-coming superpower that is Arizona. 

Stanford ultimately cut down the nets, bringing back a national title to the farm, but the real winner of the tournament is women’s basketball. 

This March, the NCAA enacted sexist policy after sexist policy, beginning with a non-existent weight room and subpar lodging. The NCAA continues to position men’s sports as the standard, with the Final Four logo for the men’s tournament simply reading “Final Four,” whereas the women’s logo reads “Women’s Final Four.” This inequitable treatment has even trickled down to the Amherst community level, as Amherst Student Activities created a March Madness bracket challenge group with a cash prize only for the men’s tournament.   

In spite of these disparities, throughout the late rounds of March Madness, the women’s tournament surpassed the men’s in social media engagement and television viewership. In the epic Elite Eight game between UConn and Baylor, the women’s tournament doubled the social media engagement of the men’s with 39 million impressions. Over three million people tuned into the Arizona-UConn game and four out of the five most-followed athletes from the tournament are women. As debate rages over the supposed lack of revenue generated by women’s sports, this tournament has proven the marketing potential and wide-ranging societal impact of female athletics at all levels.

For the first time in tournament history, two Black women coaches — Dawn Staley and Adia Barnes — led their teams to the Final Four. Throughout the tournament, Barnes showed the world not only her remarkable coaching ability, as she led an underdog team to the championship game, but she also normalized being a working mother, as she nursed her six-month-old during each game’s halftime. She explained after the championship game, “You can be great at all these things. You can be someone representing, and doing it with class, and professionalism, and doing well at your job. You can be a mom, you don’t have to stop coaching. You just have to have support, and a village.” 

Faced with a seemingly endless series of obstacles, women athletes and coaches prevailed, placing the spotlight of March Madness onto women’s basketball. This tournament made one thing very clear: ignore women’s sports at your own peril.