SAN ANTONIO — All season long, Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer was trying to convince the media that sophomore forward Haley Jones was, in fact, a freshman. Her argument was simple: the former No. 1 recruit only played 18 games in her freshman season due to injury.
It was always a way for VanDerveer to emphasize the potential for Jones. She could have a great game, show off improved defense and VanDerveer would come back to the fact that in terms of collegiate experience, Jones was a neophyte.
And then Jones hit a game-winner to send her team to the national championship game.
“She’s really made a step-up. She knows it. She’s not a freshman,” VanDerveer said. “She really was a leader out there. Obviously she has confidence. She plays with confidence. Knocking down that shot was a real big shot for her.”
While Jones earned her sophomore status with the jumper, first overall seed Stanford (30-2, 19-2 Pac-12) needed to do a bit more work to clinch the victory. No. 1 South Carolina (26-4, 14-2 SEC) had 32 seconds and took three more shots before the buzzer sounded on a 66-65 Cardinal victory.
Freshman forward Cameron Brink had a block. Sophomore forward Ashten Prechtel had a steal. Stanford ran one inbound play to perfection, then Brink turned the ball over on the second. South Carolina was off to the races in transition, where it excels, but was thwarted twice at the rim. When forward Aliyah Boston’s potential game-winning layup rolled off, Stanford could finally celebrate.
And Jones’ shot became the story.
“Haley just stays with things,” VanDerveer said. “She doesn’t get frustrated, doesn’t get upset with herself or her teammates. I think you really saw Haley have a fabulous game tonight.”
Out of a timeout trailing by one, Stanford ran a play for junior guard Lexie Hull, who missed the layup. As Stanford had done all night, Jones grabbed the rebound and quickly put up a shot to preserve a 2-for-1 opportunity.
“I just saw the ball bouncing around,” Jones said. “It was a good thing that my teammates were hitting some bodies to open it up, so I just let it fly. I was like, ‘Please Jesus, let it go in,’ and it did. We just had to move on to the next play. There was no time to get hyped up about it. We had to get back on defense. It was just a great feeling to do that for my team.”
Jones had the type of game that allows her to refer to her Hall of Fame head coach as “T-Dawg.” The jacket that debuted the nickname, gifted to VanDerveer by the team when she became the winningest head coach in women’s basketball history, did not make the trip to San Antonio. (“It’s really, really hot. It’s for winter. It’s like a sauna, it’s so warm,” VanDerveer said.) Jones’ confidence did. She made 11 of her 14 shots, grabbed four rebounds and dished two assists. Despite picking up two fouls in the first quarter, keeping her out of the entire second, she did not foul while playing the entire second half.
It was the type of game that vindicated the praise lofted on her by VanDerveer, the 2021 Naismith Women’s Coach of the Year. Before the semifinal, VanDerveer compared Jones to Magic Johnson. When she first heard the compliment postgame, she was gushing.
“Magic Johnson is a legend,” she said. “I love watching him play. The way that he is so long, lanky, agile, athletic, he’s kind of like a point forward like myself, I guess. He can really do everything. I love his passing ability and the court vision that he has. I think another thing that I really admire about him is his leadership. He always seemed so poised out there, he played with such passion, energy. He’s the one diving on the ground.
“That’s the highest compliment I’ve ever heard, so thanks. Shout-out to T-Dawg.”
VanDerveer has seen Jones working hard, focusing during practices and talking. She has watched as Jones has regained a 3-point shot from her high school days. Jones, during her freshman season, made just three 3-pointers. Before the NCAA Tournament, Jones had made just one this year. In the past five games, she has made five, including two in as many attempts on Friday.
Jones blamed herself for not working on her craft. Even if she wanted to work on it this season, getting up shots has been a challenge for Stanford. Playing away from Maples Pavilion, the practice situation was never guaranteed. Often, Stanford was in a Santa Cruz high school gym with two glass backboards and four wooden ones.
“I really tried to take advantage any extra time I could shoot,” Jones said. “When I was rehabbing, I was really working on my shot with my trainer back home. Tara and I worked with Britney (Anderson, the first-year assistant coach) every day at practice. So I think just reps really paid into my confidence. And my teammates see me shoot at practice, I feel confident … It started falling this tournament. So now I’m just running with it.”
It was fitting, then, that Jones’ second 3-pointer set a new NCAA Tournament record for team 3-pointers with 55. What was odd was that Stanford attempted just seven, despite making five.
The game was a battle all along and no one was surprised that South Carolina had a chance to win it at the buzzer. Brink’s turnover, Stanford’s 12th of the game, gave South Carolina that chance and unsurprisingly VanDerveer saw the freshman upset with herself after the game. (“You got to hold onto the ball at the end of the game,” VanDerveer said.) But Hull, followed by the rest of her Stanford teammates, hustled back on defense and disrupted the attempts by guard Brea Beal and then by Boston.
“All we had to do is get back,” Jones said. “Brea got the steal and she was going. We just had to get back. We should have boxed out on Aliyah more. We know she’s a great rebounder, great player. Luckily she missed the tip-in. It was very hectic, but we just knew we had to get back and do everything we could. We left it out there and luckily it paid off.”
Jones scored the 24th second chance point for Stanford on one end, while South Carolina could not budge off of their 15.
“(Lexie Hull) just really did hustle back,” VanDerveer said. “I mean, obviously we could look at the last possession, which was critical. But I really think the game was won in the first quarter when we were down, I know at least nine, and came back in that first quarter. We battled back.”
Once again, Stanford struggled out of the gates, shooting 1-for-5 with three turnovers. South Carolina jumped out to a 11-2 lead and eventually led 15-6, with Jones scoring all six points for the Cardinal.
Then VanDerveer made a switch, replacing fifth year guard Anna Wilson with junior guard Lacie Hull, and South Carolina did not score for the remainder of the four-plus minutes in the quarter. The quarter ended with the two teams tied at 15.
“Anna Wilson has been a lockdown defender forus all year,” VanDerveer said. “We really just didn’t have an answer for Cook or Henderson. They both had great games. We’ll have to play better on Sunday in order to be successful.”
Wilson, and then Lacie Hull, matched up with guard Zia Cooke, who roasted Stanford for 25 points, shot 10-for-23 from the field and 5-for-8 from 3-point range. That is the reason that Stanford was plus-12 in Lacie Hull’s minutes and minus-nine in Anna Wilson’s.
Senior guard Kiana Williams could not stop guard Destanni Henderson either, who scored 18 with three makes on seven attempts from beyond the arc. The plus/minus leader, however, was sophomore forward Ashten Prechtel who played 24 minutes with a plus-13 rating, and finished with nine points and eight rebounds.
Prechtel’s rebounding was critical. Although Stanford was outrebounded for just the second time all year, the first coming in the regular season loss to UCLA, the difference was just four. Against a South Carolina team that had never been outrebounded and ranked third nationally in rebound margin, it was enough. As VanDerveer explained, Stanford sacrificed offensive rebounding opportunities by telling the guards to race back on defense instead of crashing the boards.
“South Carolina, they really depend on their rebounding,” VanDerveer said. “It was hard to rebound offensively because their guards are so fast, we wanted to get back in transition. I thought we did a pretty good job of getting back and stopping their transition break with their guards.
“But I thought Ashten did a good job,” VanDerveer added. “She was trying to box out. They’re really, really a tough matchup. I think for us, having played against UCLA, their rebounding, we knew what we had to do. I thought our team tried really hard to do it.”
Stanford could be more aggressive and will not want to lose the battle in the championship game, but it can be happy with the outcome. Surprisingly, the guard defense struggled more.
“Our post players I thought played well inside. They really frustrated their bigs,” VanDerveer said. “So they went to their guards and their guards responded for them.”
Stanford’s guards struggled on offense as well. Lexie Hull scored 18 but shot 4-for-17 and did most of her damage at the line, where she was perfect on eight attempts. She had 13 rebounds, including six on the offensive glass.
Williams, like in the last game, was pressing. She made just four-of-14 attempts and missed her only 3-point attempt, snapping a 20-game streak with a make from distance.
“She is putting a lot of pressure on herself,” VanDerveer said. “She’s in her hometown. I think being in the championship game will help her a lot. But, yeah, this is how it’s going to be. They’re going to focus on her. She’ll respond. I know she’s got a great game in her.”
Jones spoke postgame about how she took to heart the advice of Nadia Fingall ’20, who spoke to the team before the Elite Eight victory. Fingall, a starter on last year’s team that never had a chance to compete in the NCAA Tournament, gave the message that each team would have runs, but if you keep composure and poise, never getting too caught up in the pressure of the moment, the shots would fall eventually. The advice could serve Williams well but also speaks to the legacy for which Stanford is playing for on Sunday.
“Stanford is a historically great program,” Jones said. “We plan to be in the years to come. I mean, so many greats and legends in my opinion have come from Stanford. We see them in the walls of our locker room every day. To be able to bring us back to the national championship stage is just an honor to be able to do that, for Tara, for the team, for the program.”
On Friday, Stanford shot 11-of-12 at the line, which ties for the fourth-best single-game free-throw percentage in NCAA Final Four history. South Carolina, for its part, shot 8-of-12 and fell to 1-4 on the season when making eight free throws or fewer. The picture was not quite as rosy for Stanford from the field, as the team shot just 41.7% and missed its fair share of layups and other assorted makeable looks.
“But maybe we’re just saving them up for Sunday,” VanDerveer said.
Stanford will seek its third NCAA Championship and first since 1992 on Sunday against Arizona. The last time Stanford reached the stage, in 2010, the game was also played at the same Alamodome. Tip will come at 3 p.m. PT.
“Tara always says this is the last time you’re going to be in this space with this group of people,” Jones said. “We only have two days left of our season. So we’re just trying to take every moment, not take anything for granted, just kind of be here, sit in it, love it, and give what we have.”