2021 NCAA Women’s Tournament

Reigning NCAA champion Stanford women picked to win Pac-12

© Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
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SAN FRANCISCO — The reigning NCAA champion Stanford women’s basketball team was picked to win the Pac-12 regular-season title in a preseason poll of conference coaches.

Hall of Fame coach Tara VanDerveer’s team captured the NCAA title last spring for the first time since 1992 and third in program history, topping fellow Pac-12 opponent Arizona in the championship game by a single point, 54-53. That’s after the Cardinal held off South Carolina 66-65 in the national semifinals.

And after Stanford spent nearly 10 weeks away from campus given Santa Clara County health restrictions banning sports practices and games during the pandemic.

“I think we’re the only team to win a semifinal and a final game by one point, so maybe there’s some karma for that. It is very challenging,” VanDerveer said. “I think we probably had 10 teams that could have won and this team did win. And this team won because they really stuck together and we made plays down the stretch that we had to make, we made defensive stops that we had to make. Obviously it wasn’t a given. I think it was really good that we had these masks because you wouldn’t have wanted to know what I was saying.”

The Cardinal earned 11 first-place votes for 121 total points in the poll announced Tuesday.

Oregon was chosen second after a run to the Sweet 16 and received a first-place vote from VanDerveer. She can’t pick her own team. UCLA was third in the poll, while Oregon State was picked fourth and Arizona fifth. Washington State is predicted sixth after the Cougars reached the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 30 years.

“I’m proud of our team and I’m proud of the whole Pac-12,” VanDerveer said. “We represented the West Coast really well.”

UCLA will play at Connecticut on Dec. 11 during the non-conference schedule – a common theme for Pac-12 coaches who regularly have their teams face top opponents in the country during the preseason to prepare.

“But make no mistake about it, the Pac-12 is our focus and we know that if we’re able to survive and thrive in the Pac-12 grind, that the NCAA Tournament will be, I’m not going to say a walk in the park, but a whole lot easier,” 11th-year Bruins coach Cori Close said.

Rounding out the poll are: Colorado at seventh, followed by Arizona State, USC, Utah, Washington and California.

Stanford is back atop the preseason poll after Oregon held the spot the past two years. The Cardinal were picked first for 15 straight years from 2000 to 2015.

“This conference somehow found a way to get tougher in the two years I was gone,” said first-year USC coach Lindsay Gottlieb, the former Cal coach who spent two seasons as an NBA assistant with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Arizona has something to prove after a special season that ended up just short.

“It was a magical run but that was last year,” coach Adia Barnes said. “The reality is, we didn’t win.”

Stanford tops South Carolina 66-65 to reach title game

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
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SAN ANTONIO — Haley Jones scored 24 points, including the go-ahead jumper with 32 seconds left, to help Stanford beat South Carolina 66-65 on Friday night and advance to the women’s NCAA Tournament championship game.

It’s Stanford’s first trip to the title game since 2010, which was also in San Antonio. The Cardinal lost to UConn in that contest, 53-47.

The Cardinal (30-2) will play the winner of UConn and Arizona for the title on Sunday night. Coach Tara VanDerveer will be looking for her third national championship at the school and first since 1992.

Trailing 65-64 with 32 seconds left, Jones hit a jumper from the corner off a rebound that gave the Cardinal a one-point lead.

“I just saw the ball bouncing around and most of my teammates were hitting some bodies to open it up. I just let it fly and I said, `Please, Jesus, go in,’ and it did,” Jones said. “And then we just had to go on to the next play, there’s no time to get hyped about, we had to get back on defense.”

Aliyah Boston had her shot blocked, but got her own rebound. Then, with 15 seconds left, Destanni Henderson threw a pass that was stolen by Ashten Prechtel.

After an inbounds, Cameron Brink lost the ball at midcourt to Boston, giving South Carolina a chance. Brea Beal missed a driving layup and Boston’s putback at the buzzer also was off the rim, sending the Cardinal onto the court to celebrate.

“Bre had a great shot. Aliyah, we should’ve boxed her out, she had a great shot, thankfully, it didn’t go in and we’re moving on to Sunday,” Jones said.

Jones and Fran Belibi ran to Boston, who was still standing under the basket and both embraced her with a long hug,

Henderson had scored six consecutive points to give the Gamecocks (26-5) a 65-64 lead with 38.8 seconds left. She had a three-point play and a 3-pointer.

Zia Cooke finished with 25 points to lead South Carolina.

Trailing 15-6 midway through the first quarter, Stanford scored the last nine points of the period to tie the game heading into the second. The Gamecocks missed their final six shots of the quarter and were scoreless for the final 4:48.

“We know basketball team’s have runs, so we can’t let that first quarter or the first five minutes dictate the whole game,” said Stanford’s Lexie Hull, who had 18 points and 13 rebounds.

The drought continued in the second quarter as the Gamecocks missed their first five shots and didn’t hit a field goal until Zia Cooke’s 3-pointer in the quarter made it 22-20. She had hit the previous basket nearly 9 1/2 minutes earlier.

The Cardinal had outscored the Gamecocks 16-2 since the early deficit.

Stanford led 31-25 at the half as Prechtel picked up where she left off from the win over Louisville in the Elite Eight. She had 16 points, all in the second half, to help the Cardinal rally to beat Louisville. She had seven in the opening 20 minutes against South Carolina.

Boston had a solid first half with seven points, nine rebounds and four blocks for the Gamecocks. She finished with 11 points, 16 rebounds and four blocks.

BANGED UP

Brink came into the game banged up after tweaking her leg in the Elite Eight win over Louisville. She had six points and six blocks.

RECORD SHOOTING

Jones hit the first 3-pointer of the second half for Stanford to break the record for most 3-pointers in the NCAA Tournament. That was the Cardinal’s 55th in the five games, giving them one more than UConn had in 2015.

South Carolina drubs Texas 62-34 to reach Final Four

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SAN ANTONIO — One by one, South Carolina players walked through the confetti and climbed the ladder to cut down the net in the Alamodome.

It was only fitting that the Gamecocks got to keep the nylon. They used it way more than Texas did.

Zia Cooke scored 16 points and South Carolina used its stifling defense to advance to the Final Four for the third time, shutting down Texas for a 62-34 victory Tuesday night.

Top-seeded South Carolina blocked 14 shots, nine by Laeticia Amihere, and held No. 6 Texas to 23% shooting. The Longhorns were outscored 10-0 in the fourth quarter.

The Gamecocks have been on a mission ever since they felt they were denied a real chance at the national title last season when the NCAA Tournament was cancelled because of the pandemic. It showed all night long, but especially during the first scoreless quarter in the tourney since the women’s game went to quarters in 2016.

“It says they’re locked in,” South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said. “They have been focused, they wanted the opportunity to get to the Final Four. They know nothing about what they just accomplished. I like who we’re bringing into this Final Four.”

South Carolina (26-4) won the Hemisfair Region to advance to Friday’s national semifinal against Stanford, the tournament’s overall No. 1 seed. UConn and Arizona meet in the other national semifinal.

Destanni Henderson and Victaria Saxton each scored 12 for the Gamecocks, and Amihere also had 10 points and eight rebounds in a terrific all-around performance.

South Carolina ran out to an 19-point lead in the third quarter, and responded to a Texas run with a burst started by a 3-pointer from Henderson. Then it put a lid on basket in the fourth.

“We don’t back down from anyone,” Cooke said. “We just made sure that we put our foot on the gas, kept our guard up and did what we needed to do.”

Staley ran her championship game record against Texas’ Vic Schaefer to 6-0, dating to when they faced each other in the SEC when Schaefer was at Mississippi State. That includes beating Schaefer in the 2017 national final.

“They can test you at everything that you do. Whether 3-point range or at the rim,” Schaefer said. “That’s a reflection of Dawn. To me, those kids really embody probably how she was as a player.”

Schaefer took the Texas job in April 2020 and coaxed an impressive postseason run out of the Longhorns behind a grinding defense that carried the school to the brink of its first women’s Final Four since 2003.

Texas was looking to become just the third No. 6 seed to make the Final Four since Notre Dame in 1997.

“This feeling right now, it’s tough,” said guard Kyra Lambert, who played at least 38 minutes in Texas’ last three games and provided the go-ahead basket against Maryland in the Sweet 16. “This is not how I pictured this to end.”

The Longhorns looked tired and a step slow after tough wins over UCLA and Maryland. They may have simply been worn out by the time they matched up with the big and quick Gamecocks, who pressured the ball on the perimeter and denied shots inside.

Audrey Warren led the Longhorns (21-10) with 13 points.

“Texas was a little tired,” Staley said. “I said, ‘They may have some weary legs, but their hearts are going to keep beating.’ And their hearts did keep beating, it’s just that we just never let them off the hook.”

South Carolina had no problems attacking the Texas defense early, with three backdoor passes for layups by Saxton as the Gamecocks raced to an 18-7 lead. And the Gamecocks denied drives to the basket and produced four quick blocks when Texas tried.

The Longhorns shot just 3 of 16 in the first quarter. Meanwhile, South Carolina shot 57% in the first half and stretched the lead to 41-22 early in the third before Texas clawed back with a 9-0 run that forced Staley to call timeout.

South Carolina answered with a 3-pointer from Henderson to start the Gamecocks on the run that would put the game away.

BATTLE UNDER THE BASKET

Aliyah Boston, South Carolina’s All-American center, dominated her matchup with Texas forward Charli Collier, who is projected as the No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft. Boston consistently pushed Collier away from the basket and never let her get comfortable with her shot. Collier was a non-factor on the night, finishing with four points on 2-of-10 shooting points and four rebounds. Boston scored 10 and grabbed eight boards while controlling the paint.

Stanford rallies to beat Louisville 78-63, reach Final Four

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
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SAN ANTONIO — Lexie Hull scored 21 points and Stanford reached the Final Four by rallying for a 78-63 victory over Louisville on Tuesday night.

Next up for the top-seeded Cardinal is South Carolina on Friday night in a rematch of the 2017 national semifinals. Stanford dropped that one 62-53, ending its previous appearance in the Final Four. UConn and Arizona meet in the other national semifinal.

Stanford (29-2) trailed by 12 midway through the third quarter before scoring 13 consecutive points to take its first lead since early in the game. The teams traded baskets the rest of the period and No. 2 seed Louisville (26-4) was up 50-48 heading into the final quarter.

The Cardinal scored the first 10 points of the fourth to go up 58-50. That run was capped by Kiana Williams’ 3-pointer. The San Antonio native had a rough start to the game, missing 11 of her first 12 shots. She finally got going offensively, hitting four shots in a row to help Stanford build its lead.

Stanford was up 68-60 with just over 3 minutes left when Williams hit a step-back 3 that sealed the victory. She finished with 14 points.

The win moves the Cardinal one step closer to getting coach Tara VanDerveer her first national championship since 1992 and No. 3 overall. Now the Cardinal have reached a 14th Final Four.

The loss potentially ends the stellar collegiate career of All-America guard Dana Evans, who could decide to return next year since the NCAA awarded all players an extra year of eligibility this year because of the coronavirus pandemic. The senior guard scored 24 points for Louisville, but got little help on offense.

Louisville had been playing stifling defense the entire tournament. Coming into Tuesday night’s game, the Cardinals were allowing a tournament-low 46 points a game and teams were shooting just 29.5% against them.

They held Stanford to just 26 points in the first half and led 38-26 thanks to some strong play from Evans, who had 10 points early.

Stanford missed eight of its nine 3-point attempts and was just 10 for 36 from the field (27.8%). Besides misfiring from outside, the Cardinal missed a lot of easy lay-ins as well.

The Cardinal got going in the second half and made six of their final eight 3-point attempts.

HONORING TARA

VanDerveer was among 12 people named to the FIBA Hall of Fame Class of 2020. The announcement of the class was delayed a year because of the coronavirus pandemic. VanDerveer helped lead the U.S. to a gold medal at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. That started the current run the Americans are on of six consecutive gold medals at the Olympics. There will be a digital ceremony on June 18 to honor the Class of 2020, and the Class of 2021 which will be announced on Thursday.

STRONG OFF THE BENCH

Ashten Prechtel played a huge role off the bench for the Cardinal, hitting all six of her shots, including three 3-pointers. She finished with 16 points.

McDonald powers Arizona past Indiana and into Final Four

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SAN ANTONIO — Arizona asks Aari McDonald to do just about everything for the Wildcats. And just about every game, she delivers all she’s got.

McDonald scored 33 points in a dizzying display of razzle-dazzle shot making and gutsy leadership in crunch time, carrying the No. 3 seed Wildcats to a 66-53 win over No. 4 seed Indiana on Monday night, sending Arizona to its first Final Four in women’s NCAA Tournament history.

“Just being a little player, I always play with a chip on my shoulder,” said McDonald, who stands just 5-foot-6 but used her small frame size to slip under and around Indiana defenders or shake them off the dribble.

“A lot of people say I’m too small. I’ll never do this, I’ll never do that. That drives me,” she said.

The Pac-12 player of the year controlled just about every Arizona possession, hitting the Hoosiers with slashing drives, timely rebounds and even a banked-in 3-pointer.

She briefly left the game with a twisted left ankle late in the fourth quarter, but had it taped up and limped back on the court to score six more points. Her three-point play with 34 seconds left put the exclamation point on the victory.

Arizona (20-5) advanced to Friday’s national semifinal against top-seeded UConn, which reached its 13th straight Final Four when it beat No. 2 seed Baylor earlier Monday.

Wildcats coach Adia Barnes, who led the Wildcats to the Sweet 16 as a point guard in 1998, is now the sixth coach to lead her alma mater to the women’s Final Four.

Barnes has said she took a risk when she returned to coach at Arizona five years ago, when it was one of the worst programs in the Pac-12. Then McDonald transferred from Washington and the two have been not-so-quietly building the program in the desert ever since.

“Aari, I asked her to do everything. She has done everything the whole time she’s been here,” Barnes. “And I’m proud of all of these young women around her. They fight and they play for her, and it’s just amazing.”

McDonald topped 30 points for the second straight tournament game. She scored 31 against Texas A&M two days earlier. Against the Hoosiers, she was 12-for-20 shooting and made 5 of 6 3-pointers.

“I always want to be better than I was the day before,” McDonald said.

History was going to be made whichever team won Monday night. The Hoosiers advanced past the Sweet 16 for the first time but their methodical, grinding game simply ran into a a player it couldn’t match for 40 minutes.

It worked for three quarters. After pulling back from an eight-point deficit in the third behind a workhorse night from Mackenzie Holmes in the post, the Hoosiers had tied it 48-48. But a scoring drought of more than three minutes kept them from making a charge in a game Indiana led only one minute of the second in the second quarter.

Holmes scored 20 and grabbed eight rebounds to lead Indiana (21-6), and the Hoosiers tried to use her presence in the post to control the game until the late scoring problems.

Arizona made consecutive 3-pointers in the middle of the fourth quarter, the latter from Helena Pueyo off a bullet pass from McDonald, for a 57-50 lead. Pueyo made two 3-pointers in the final quarter.

“I feel like we got some good looks, we couldn’t put an exclamation point on some of them,” Indiana coach Teri Moren said. “It was tough for us, but I feel like we gave it everything we got and we didn’t let up for one second. And that’s all I can ask for from my team.”

The tension of the biggest night in program history for both teams showed early in a timid, ragged start as the first 10 shots of the game misfired before McDonald finally got a short jumper to fall. Once McDonald started heating up, she scored 10 of Arizona’s first 14 points.

McDonald even grabbed a game-high 11 rebounds, including one she ripped from and Indiana player’s hands for a layup to close the third quarter.

“She’s an elite player and she stepped up big time,” Holmes said. “She got to the rim well, she can score on all three levels … We gave it our best shot, but she hit a lot of tough shots on us tonight.”

STAT LINE

Indiana shot 36% and was 0 of 9 on 3-pointers. The Hoosiers were 13 of 17 on free throws but got zero points off their bench and only got eight second-chance points.

UConn reaches 13th straight Final Four, beating Baylor 69-67

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
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SAN ANTONIO — Paige Bueckers scored 28 points and top seed UConn used a huge run spanning the final two quarters to beat No. 2 Baylor 69-67 on Monday night and reach a 13th consecutive Final Four in the women’s NCAA Tournament.

“Each year that we do it, I still can’t believe it,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said.

UConn has made the national semifinals every season since 2008 and won six titles during that span. The Huskies await the winner of Arizona and Indiana on Friday night. Neither of those teams has played in a Final Four.

It took a last-second stop to keep that streak going.

The Huskies (28-1) trailed 55-45 late in the third quarter before scoring 19 consecutive points, including 10 by the freshman phenom Bueckers, who became the third first-year player to make first-team All-America.

“Paige got that look in her eye, started getting some buckets. And when Paige is scoring, the rest of the team really gains a lot of confidence,” Auriemma said. “Our defense got just really good at the end, and we got some great stops.”

Baylor (28-3) wouldn’t go away as Bueckers went cold in the final minutes. Trailing 64-55, NaLyssa Smith, an All-American herself, ended the Lady Bears’ drought with 6:47 left and sparked a 12-4 burst that got Baylor within one after Dijonai Carrington converted two free throws with 19.3 seconds left.

After a timeout, Baylor fouled Christyn Williams, who missed both free throws to give the Lady Bears one last chance.

Carrington, who finished with 22 points, drove the lane to the left and missed a contested jumper from the baseline. Williams corralled the rebound and was fouled with 0.8 seconds left. She hit one of the free throws before Bueckers stole the inbounds pass at the buzzer.

No one has played UConn tougher over the last decade than Baylor, with each team winning four of the matchups. The Lady Bears (28-3) had won the previous two, including a 74-58 win at Connecticut in January of 2020.

They were supposed to meet this past January, but Baylor coach Kim Mulkey came down with COVID-19 around Christmas and the game was canceled.

The game got off to a fast start for UConn, which jumped out to a 16-4 lead behind Bueckers. But Baylor was just getting going. The Lady Bears closed the action-packed first quarter with a 20-10 run and trailed 26-24 after one.

“It seemed like for long stretches there, I just thought we were being manhandled there. They’re bigger, quicker, faster, stronger,” Auriemma said. “But we got a couple of key stops when we had to.”

The offense slowed down in the second quarter. There were 11 blocks combined in the first half, including seven by Baylor, which led 39-37 at the break.

Carrington provided a huge spark off the bench, scoring 14 points to go along with two steals and a block in the opening 20 minutes.

Baylor went on a 10-2 run in the third quarter to push ahead 55-45. Then UConn took over, scoring the final eight points of the period. Williams and Bueckers highlighted an 8-0 spurt that made it a two-point game heading into the fourth quarter.

STILL SIDELINED

UConn starting guard Nika Muhl missed her third straight game with a sprained right ankle she suffered in the team’s opening-round win over High Point.