Arizona, Stanford carry Pac-12 banner in women's title game
The conference is guaranteed its first champion since 1992
The last time that Tara VanDerveer and Stanford were playing for a national championship, the Pac-12 had just 10 schools and the Cardinal were the standard bearer for the conference.
Now 11 years later, the Pac-12 is on top of the women's basketball world with the Cardinal facing Arizona on Sunday night for the title. The conference is guaranteed its first champion since the hall of fame coach and the Cardinal won their last title in 1992.
"I'm really proud of the Pac-12 to have two teams in the national championship game," VanDerveer said. "You know, this is not something that a lot of people could have imagined ... 10 years ago, 15 years ago, 20 years ago. And it's really, really exciting."
Stanford was last in the title game in 2010, losing to UConn in the Alamodome — the same building the Cardinal will be playing in on Sunday night. The conference became the Pac-12 a year later after expansion. The league has had six different schools in the Final Four since 2013, but none reached the title game until Friday night when both Stanford and Arizona advanced.
"In the Pac-12 we've been saying all along we have the best teams in the country and to have two Pac-12 teams speaks for itself," Arizona coach Adia Barnes said. "Stanford won the Pac-12 championship and we were second. Both of us in the Final Four and championship game, it means a lot for our conference."
To get to Sunday night's game the Cardinal held on to beat South Carolina 66-65 on a basket by Haley Jones with 32 seconds left Friday night. After Jones' shot but the Cardinal up, Stanford survived two last-second misses by the Gamecocks.
Arizona didn't need any last-second karma to beat the Huskies 69-59. Wildcats All-America Aari McDonald scored 26 points and the team played stifling defence to put the clamps on UConn
"No one thought we'd win, no one thought we'd be here," Barnes said. "We don't care. We believed in each other. We believed, our team believed."
McDonald has been a huge reason why. The 5-foot-6 guard, who is lightning quick, is one of the rare two-way players in the game who can impact contests on both ends of the court.
Sunday night's game will pit two teams from west of the Mississippi against each other for the first time since 1986.
A few tidbits to look for in Sunday's women's title game:
Third time the charm?
Arizona lost twice to Stanford during the regular season, but both teams are much improved from their last meeting on Feb. 22 which the Cardinal won 62-48.
"What's on our side is it's hard to beat a team three times in a season," Barnes said. "We're a lot better and so is Stanford. Speaking about us, we're shooting the ball better, defending better and playing better basketball than when we played them."
Barnes has turned to VanDerveer many times over the course of the season for advice. The Arizona coach's respect goes back to her playing days for the Wildcats in the late 1990s.
"She's someone who will always be honest, and it's never honesty to benefit Stanford," Barnes said. "She's someone who wants to support you. She's very secure and wants to help women develop and wants to grow the game. She's an advocate for women's basketball and I have the most respect for her."
Growing the game
Barnes became the fourth Black woman to lead a team to the championship game, joining C. Vivian Stringer, Carolyn Peck and Dawn Staley.
Pokey Chatman guided LSU to the Final Four in 2005 and 2006.
"It just means the world. I think I represent a lot of different things, but representation matters, opportunities matter. When we're given opportunity, we can flourish," Barnes said. "I was given an opportunity by an (athletic director) that believed in a young coach that had only been coaching five years. This is only my fifth-year as a head coach. I was a five-year assistant, a 13-year pro.
"Someone believed in me, saw something in me that maybe I didn't even see in myself at the time."
There have also been two Black men to have guide teams to the women's Final Four. Quentin Hillsman led Syracuse to the title game in 2016 and Winthrop McGriff took Cheney to the national semifinals in 1984.
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Only 13 Black women were head coaches at Power Five programs this season. Barnes said there is a perception that female Black coaches are just recruiters since a majority of their players are Black.
"We can recruit but we're not only recruiters," Barnes said before offering advice to other Black female coaches "Don't allow yourself as a female, as a black female, to be pigeonholed into one thing. Learn, work on your trade, study, pull someone else along as a woman, as a woman of colour. Aspire big, do big things. Don't let yourself be pigeonholed in one thing."
Canadians playing in final
Two Canadians will be playing on Sunday's final as Stanford has Toronto's Alyssa Jerome on its roster. Arizona, meanwhile, has Shaina Pellington of Pickering, Ont.
Jerome has played in 27 games and started one this season and is averaging 1.6 points. She has appeared in three games in the tournament but has yet to record a point.
Pellington, meanwhile, has had a much bigger role as she has played in 26 games including seven post-season games. In the post-season, she is averaging 4.3 points in 14 minutes per game.