Playing in the Final Four for the second consecutive year, Stanford had experience on its side. With 12 of 13 letter winners returning from last year’s national championship team, nearly every player had been on this stage before. But at this point in the postseason, only the very best teams remain. And Stanford got UConn’s very best on Friday night.
In the Final Four in Minneapolis, No. 1 seed Stanford (32-4, 16-0 Pac-12) fell to No. 2 UConn (30-5, 16-1 Big East) 63-58. Outside shooting struggles plagued the Cardinal’s back-to-back title aspirations as their 4-of-23 performance from behind the arc resulted in the team’s fourth-lowest scoring output of the season.
Going into Friday’s contest, the college basketball world knew it would be a heavyweight matchup. At the helm for both teams were the two winningest head coaches in college women’s basketball history, with Tara VanDerveer leading Stanford and Geno Auriemma guiding UConn.
Stanford entered the Final Four on a 24-game win streak, by far the longest active streak in college basketball. Despite some bumps towards the end of the Pac-12 regular season, they showed few weaknesses in postseason play, coasting to a Pac-12 Tournament Title and handily winning in the first four rounds of the NCAA tournament behind stellar team defense.
Throughout March Madness, junior guard Haley Jones displayed her unique combination of scoring and playmaking en route to becoming the Most Outstanding Player of the Spokane Regional. Senior guard Lexie Hull stepped up when it mattered most, leading the team in scoring in three of their four games. Sophomore forward Cameron Brink made her mark on both ends of the court, most memorably with her 10-point performance — all of which came in the third quarter— vs. No. 2 Texas (29-7, 13-5 Big 12) to propel the Cardinal to their second straight Final Four.
As for UConn, the Huskies flew into Minneapolis playing their best basketball of the year. After a slow start, at least by the historic program’s standards, UConn closed Big East play winning seven of its final eight conference contests by a margin of 30 points or more. The timely return of Paige Bueckers, last year’s National Player of the Year, was integral to the Huskies’ journey to the Final Four. In UConn’s Elite Eight double overtime victory, the sophomore guard poured in 27 points, 15 of which came after regulation, to send her team to the Final Four.
With the two teams’ defensive prowess, it was no surprise that the matchup began as a low-scoring affair. After one quarter of play, the Huskies led 12-9 with both sides shooting less than 35% from the field. Eight of Stanford’s points came from Jones and Brink.
“We really struggled running our offense,” VanDerveer said. “I think there were some self-inflicted wounds, what we were doing out there, and it was disappointing.”
With the Cardinal’s continued shooting struggles, the beginning of the second quarter belonged to the Huskies. UConn guard Evina Westbrook knocked down her third straight 3-pointer of the period to give the Huskies a six-point lead.
However, Stanford responded with a 7-0 run, giving the team its first lead of the game with 1:20 remaining in the first half. A score from Nika Mühl closed the first half, giving UConn a 27-26 advantage entering the break.
The third quarter was a microcosm of Stanford’s offensive performance in the game, as the team went 4-of-16 from the field and 1-of-9 from deep in the period. Jones and Brink once again led the way with eight of the team’s 11 points.
“I think offensively a part of it is not hitting shots, but that’s bound to happen,” said Jones of the team’s struggles. “You can’t make all of your shots.”
Fortunately for the Cardinal, the Huskies could not capitalize, as they committed five turnovers. The lead was exchanged four times until the Huskies closed the third quarter up 39-37.
In the final frame, tensions were high in true March Madness fashion. After getting substituted into the game, Brink committed back-to-back fouls within two minutes, extending her foul total to four and forcing VanDerveer to send her back to the bench. With the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year off the court, UConn extended its lead — and never relinquished it.
The Huskies had a 52-44 cushion with 1:26 remaining, until Stanford put forth a final push.
With the team’s back against the wall, Jones took the inbounds pass and went coast to coast to cut the deficit to six. UConn was then called for a violation on the ensuing inbounds play, turning over the ball to Stanford.
A converted pair of free throws for both sides kept the differential at six until Stanford forced through the press, leading to a 3-pointer from senior guard Lacie Hull. Just like that, the Cardinal were only down 54-51 with 55 seconds remaining.
Defensive miscommunication on the ensuing possession led to an easy bucket for the Huskies, who extended their lead to five. A missed shot and a foul led to two more free throws for UConn, before another 3-pointer for Stanford, this time from junior forward Ashten Prechtel, reignited hope with the deficit cut to four points.
A turnover from the Huskies on the next possession was followed by a layup from Jones, leaving the score at 58-56 with 22 seconds remaining.
Playing the fouling game from there, however, the Cardinal were never able to recover. UConn ultimately won 63-58, advancing to their 12th national championship in program history.
“I’m really proud of the resiliency that this team has shown, especially in tonight’s game,” Jones said. “We’re down eight with like a minute left and we get it to two. Even though when they’re making their free throws and whatnot, we’re executing out of time-outs, we’re diving on the ground, we’re sprinting, we’re doing everything we can possible and continuing to encourage each other.”
With this loss, Stanford puts a close to a remarkable season. Despite falling short of another national championship, the titles and accolades came in abundance. The Cardinal earned a Pac-12 regular season title, a Pac-12 Tournament championship, and a Spokane Regional championship in the NCAA Tournament.
Jones and Brink earned themselves All-American nods in addition to multiple Pac-12 awards. Both Lacie and Lexie Hull were named CoSIDA Academic All-Americans, with Lexie also claiming the Senior CLASS Award.
With this season in the books, Stanford surely has its sights set on making a deep run in the tournament once again next year. The team is set to lose sixth-year guard Anna Wilson and fifth-year players Alyssa Jerome and Jordan Hamilton. They could also lose both Hull sisters. However, with two of the top five recruits in the nation joining the program next year as well as the continued improvement of this deep roster, their title aspirations are not beyond reach.