Anna Wilson’s defense won a championship.
It is an oversimplification, and it was just a step on the way to loftier goals, but it was meaningful. The fifth year guard, helped by her teammates, slowed down opposing guard Aari McDonald and celebrated the first Pac-12 regular season title on the Farm since 2014.
Wilson dribbled out the clock on a 62-48 victory for No. 4 Stanford (21-2, 18-2 Pac-12). For the second time this season, the Cardinal defense handled No. 9 Arizona (15-3, 13-3 Pac-12). There was no 27-point blowout, but the 48 Arizona points are its fewest this season.
There is a world where Wilson does not come back for a fifth year. But her team is happy that — although the new normal includes a fan- and family-less celebration — it also includes Wilson and the expectation of winning.
It was not a solo project. Wilson traded defensive duties on McDonald with junior guard Lexie Hull. She also did not score — though she added three rebounds and a steal in her 28 minutes. It was a team effort.
McDonald scored 20 points, but lacked efficiency. She is deservedly a staple of every National Player of the Year watchlist. But she also had three turnovers, all on charges taken by Wilson. If there is a conversation about Defensive Player of the Year, Wilson has to be leading it.
“You’re not going to quote ‘stop her’ but she went 8-for-24, 0-for-6 from three,” head coach Tara VanDerveer said. “I thought Anna did a fabulous job on her. She did hit her little pull-up but we’re willing to live with that… The defensive effort by both Anna and Lexie were awesome.”
Wilson was relentless in her pursuit. She was a pest, a shadow and a defensive captain all at once. Once again, she attributed all of her on-court, quick-thinking decision making to her preparation. Even if she was not willing to say her conditioning was at its peak.
“For me, it’s really like my teammates help me a ton in terms of defending someone like that, someone who’s really fast and someone who can shoot as well,” Wilson said. “Obviously when you’re watching you might not know all the things we’re doing and I can’t tell you all the things that we’re doing. But what’s really great about it is that we spend time offseason watching and paying attention and just trying to stick to those things and not get emotional if she scores or she’s fouled. She’s gonna score. It’s just being okay with it.”
Stanford’s defensive plan allowed McDonald to take mid-range jumpers. The idea was to avoid layups and 3-point attempts. McDonald started 1-for-10 from the field and hardly got going after. She did not get her first made layup until a minute left in the game. She missed all six 3-point attempts. Wilson took away her main tendencies — driving left — and made her uncomfortable. Conceding the jumpers was okay.
As McDonald goes, so goes Arizona. The Wildcats shot 30.9% from the floor and 23.8% from distance. They scored just 10 points in the paint. Stanford pulled ahead in the rebound battle. Only forward Sam Thomas, who Stanford accidentally left open for 3-pointers, joined McDonald in double figures. Forward Cate Reese, who averages 12 points per game, had just seven. With McDonald opting for high volume, Reese was left with the table scraps — five attempts.
While Stanford did not have its best offensive game either, it was enough. Hull led the team with 16 points, senior guard Kiana Williams found her way to 15 and sophomore Haley Jones added 13. Freshman forward Cameron Brink scored 10 but saw her foul troubles creep back, this time fouling out with two to play in the fourth quarter.
Turnovers, however, kept the game close. Stanford had 16. “We have to take care of the ball,” VanDerveer said. “Our turnover situation was a problem.” Jones was responsible for seven and Hull for four more. The head coach did not expect the issue to persist.
“Haley’s got to decide that she’s going to take better care of the ball,” VanDerveer said. “They’re just some bad decisions. She’s a young player… I think she’s a very intelligent player. She needs to watch and I think her teammates need to talk to her, you know, to say ‘hey you know take care of the ball because we want to win.’ If [Haley is] turning the ball over that much again, I got to take her out, and that would be unfortunate because she does so many other really good things.”
Jones had eight rebounds and Hull had nine. On a night when offense was a precious commodity, VanDerveer needed to keep both of them on the court. At any moment, Jones can create her own shot or even lead the offense from the point to give Williams a rest. Just as often, Hull will fly in for a rebound, floor burn or make a great move to the basket. It is no surprise that the junior sees the turnovers as fixable.
“It’s just gonna take more focus,” Hull said. “We went over their defense on the screens and they trap and I didn’t play it like they trap. So I think that’s just, you know, the coaches are preparing us and we just need to really focus and lock in and eliminate those mistakes. Because like Tara said, if we want to win a championship down the road, we’re gonna have to get rid of those.”
If the atmosphere was unclear with an empty arena and the low din of pumped-in crowd noise, VanDerveer’s rotation made it clear that a title was on the line. Until the final 30 seconds of the game, the Hall of Fame coach limited the rotation to just eight players with junior guard Lacie Hull not in uniform. Clearly, the calculation was to keep Jones and Hull on the court despite their mistakes.
“We’re not gonna win without them,” VanDerveer said. “We need Lexie doing what she’s doing, but she’s got to eliminate some turnovers. We need Haley doing what she’s doing but she’s got to eliminate turnovers. And these are smart women, I think they’ll really focus on it. And if they want our team to be successful, I think we’ll get their attention… We can’t be throwing the ball around the gym. And give credit to Arizona, they’re an aggressive team so they forced some of those turnovers.”
To the coach’s point, Arizona was credited with 11 steals. But the nine assist to 16 turnover ratio is not indicative of championship basketball, and at this time of year, that is the mindset.
Otherwise, the 43.4% shooting was not atrocious and the 36.4% from deep was a tick higher even than the season average. It seemed like Stanford was getting looks that it could, and normally does, convert, but was not doing so.
“We struggled getting in a groove,” VanDerveer said. “I think people missed some shots that are good shots for them. And so I just encouraged them to keep taking them.”
Sophomore guard Hannah Jump was the beneficiary of her coach’s unwavering confidence. Soon after her coach told her from the bench to “just keep shooting,” Jump connected on her first 3-pointer on her third attempt. With the make and the win, Stanford improved to 17-0 when Jump makes a shot from deep.
Stanford won its tenth straight and snapped a seven-game Arizona win streak. The Cardinal also did not lose a quarter (tying in the first) en route to a regular season title seven years in the making.
“Being here for five years and not winning a regular season has been really tough in the sense of I love winning,” Wilson said. “Something that I heard Tara say during our end of game talk was that we’re all in this universe of winning. We’re all normal to winning… I want to win and I think that made it much easier to really focus on the season and giving it as much as I could.”
Only this win meant a little more, with Stanford able to celebrate in its home gym after spending two months on the road.
“We’re used to all this stuff, but no one’s in the gym to celebrate except for you [the media],” VanDerveer said. “We’ve got a banner. I mean, this is a big deal. And, you know, I told our team this, so I’m really, really proud of them.”
“I get a little emotional because it’s such a great thing that this team has accomplished,” VanDerveer said. “It’s not just about basketball, it’s how they have been as teammates, how they have been mature. I mean no one’s late for the bus. It’s been amazing so you want good things for people that are like that. And I’m really proud of the leadership of our team. I’m really proud of the sisterhood that they really care about each other.”
While VanDerveer invited Oregon State to make the trip to the Farm, which would give Stanford its full slate of 22 conference games, the coach does not expect a positive return on the RSVP. Even without the game, Stanford has come the closest to playing a full schedule of any Pac-12 team. Even without the Oregon State game, Stanford can look forward to Senior Day in Maples Pavilion.
“They’re a huge part of this team, and we definitely would not be where we are without the three of them,” Hull said of the seniors. “To play for them and play with them is just such a privilege and I think that our team feels that and we feel their leadership every practice every game.”
Hull started laughing, embarrassed to be bragging on her teammates while Wilson was in the room.
“I think we all want to finish the season off on a really strong note for them in Maples and we don’t want them to leave dissatisfied, we want to play for them and make them happy.”
Stanford will close out the regular season in Maples Pavilion against rival Cal on Sunday at 1 p.m. PT.