Elation and Heartbreak Meet as Stanford Survives South Carolina in a Final Four Classic

Tara VanDerveer's Cardinal are off to the women's national title game on the back of their balance and defensive strength.
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SAN ANTONIO — Aliyah Boston twisted from hope to heartbreak in one fluid, devastating motion. Her last-second tip shot went up. And as it clanked out, final buzzer ringing, she went down. A Cardinal celebration burst out around her while Boston, wracked with sobs, sank to her knees.

After a feverish back-and-forth of a fourth quarter, South Carolina had lost to Stanford, 66 to 65.

The Final Four match-up was intense and frenetic throughout. But it was never more so than in its final minute. South Carolina took its first lead of the second half with just 41 seconds left—going up by one on a three-pointer from Destanni Henderson. Stanford responded with a missed layup, but Haley Jones grabbed the offensive rebound and made a jumper, taking back the lead. South Carolina then failed to capitalize on a rollercoaster of a possession: Boston missed a layup, got the rebound, and kicked it to Henderson, who turned it over with 16 seconds remaining. But the Gamecocks got one more chance. As the seconds ticked down—10, 9, 8—Boston stole the ball.

She shot it downcourt to Brea Beal. With two seconds left, the guard had an open look at a layup, and she missed. But Boston was there in time to grab the rebound—and to try, unsuccessfully, to tip it in for the win.

Stanford celebrates its Final Four win over South Carolina

As Boston tossed up her last hope, Dawn Staley flashed back to a game from February, the team’s overtime loss against Connecticut. The final seconds of the fourth quarter in that one had proceeded in almost exactly the same manner—there, too, Boston had grabbed an offensive rebound for a chance to win it with a tip shot. But this time, Staley hoped, the ending might be different.

“I thought it was going to be redemption for Aliyah,” said the head coach. “Just for that ball to drop in for her. But it wasn’t in the cards for us.”

Stanford now heads to the national championship after a win that showed off its balance and defensive strength. It couldn’t out-rebound South Carolina—no one has done that all year. But the Cardinal came relatively close (36 boards to the Gamecocks’ 40), and they blocked 12 shots, more than any other team has managed against South Carolina.

It was a showcase for Haley Jones, who led the team in scoring with 24. But it stood out just as much for the rebounding ability of Lexie Hull; for the tough, physical defense of freshman Cameron Brink; and for the vital bench contributions of Ashten Prechtel. This has been one of Stanford’s strengths all year—that it never has to depend too heavily on any one player—and it helped push it over the edge here.

Tara VanDerveer’s path to a championship has always run through Staley. Both of her titles with Stanford—1990 and 1992—came after defeating Staley in the Final Four as a player with Virginia. The second of those wins was, like this one, a one-point game with a heart-stopping ending. Then, the failed opportunity for the last shot went to Staley. Now, 29 years later, she was asked about how Boston—a perfectionist, still just a sophomore, prone to replaying bad moments over and over—might move on from this. Staley remembered that Stanford Final Four loss of her own.

“That stays with me. That’s 29 years later,” she said. “But from 29 years ago to now, I mean, there are so many good memories to replace that … Aliyah will get over it. Aliyah is a great player. Aliyah will come back stronger, better. If she’s ever put in this position again, she’ll knock it down.”

Staley got her revenge on VanDerveer as a coach by defeating Stanford in the Final Four in 2017. But now the cards have flipped—putting VanDerveer, the winningest coach in the history of women’s college basketball, in a final for the first time since 2010 and with a chance to win it all for the first time in almost three decades, an opportunity that has repeatedly eluded her despite all her success.

This time, she says, is different.

“I don’t have any kind of skeletons in the closet or ghosts or whatever,” said VanDerveer. “This is a team I have confidence in, confidence in themselves, really plays hard for each other.