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After a tournament full of agonizing finishes and star-making moments, the women’s national championship game tips off Sunday at 6 p.m. ET, with No. 3 seed Arizona taking on top overall seed Stanford. Here are some of the themes to keep an eye out for:
A Pac-12 Showdown
It’s an all-Pac-12 championship! That ensures that the conference will have its first women's title since Stanford won it all back in 1992—a sign of how much growth there has been here in recent years, not only among these two programs, but also from schools like Oregon and UCLA. The Pac-12 was arguably the toughest conference in the women’s game this season and a title game between its two best teams is the best way to drive that point home.
Both teams coming from the same conference also means that they have quite a bit of familiarity with one another—which is no small thing in a year where the pandemic meant limited nonconference schedules and therefore lots of teams playing each other in the NCAA tournament for the first time all year. But the Wildcats and Cardinal played each other twice during the regular season: Stanford won both, and neither was particularly close, 81–51 and 62–48.
Don’t take those drubbings as a guarantee of the final score on Sunday. Yes, Stanford is the better team on paper. Yes, it's widely projected to win. But Arizona has looked much stronger in the last two weeks than it has at any other point this season. No. 2 Texas A&M was widely projected to beat Arizona in the Sweet 16 … and so was No. 1 UConn in the Final Four … and look how those turned out. The Wildcats have been playing their best basketball of the season at exactly the right time.
“We’re shooting the ball better, we’re defending better, we’re playing better basketball than we were when we played them,” Arizona coach Adia Barnes said of how her team looks now compared to its earlier showings against Stanford. Which, sure, that’s fairly standard coach-speak. But the tape bears out her point here.
The conference familiarity here does make for some shared history that could play out in interesting ways—but it doesn’t mean that we know exactly what to expect.
The Cardinal players you’ll probably hear about the most are leading scorer Kiana Williams and do-it-all sophomore guard Haley Jones. But this team’s greatest strength is its depth. Despite the fact that it boasts one of the game’s strongest offenses, with 78 points per game, no one player averages more than 14. It’s common to have three or four starters in double figures, and several big bench contributions, too: Cameron Brink, Ashten Prechtel, and Francesca Belibi are all capable of doing strong work from off the bench.
This means that there’s no single player who poses a truly dire threat to opposing teams. (Though Jones’s versatility makes her close.) But it also means that Stanford can be a headache to defend. Anyone on the floor, at any time, might stand out as dangerous.
Aari McDonald Is a One-Woman Highlight Reel
No, Aari McDonald isn’t the only player to watch from Arizona—Sam Thomas and Cate Reese, among others, come up with solid performances night after night. But McDonald is hands-down the most electric. The 5’ 6” guard plays with a frenzied energy that can make her almost impossible to stop from scoring and just as impossible to score on. Her performance in the Final Four against UConn showed it all—deep threes, smoothly maneuvered drives and scrappy defense.
“She has flat-out speed,” Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer said on Saturday. “She’s a jet … quickness and speed, she’s got great hands, she’s super aggressive.”
No one in the tournament so far has had an answer for McDonald. (Before dropping 26 on UConn, she’d scored 31 against Texas A&M and 33 against Indiana.) Stanford faces a tall order in shutting her down. But it might be necessary for them to win. If McDonald is able to play on the same level that she’s been at recently, it’s hard to imagine that there’s anything her team can’t do—even a championship upset like this.
Pick 'Em: Women's Title Game
No. 3 Arizona over No. 1 Stanford: It’ll be close—but if Stanford shows up with some of the same disjointed defense that it had against South Carolina, and Aari McDonald is anything as much of a force as she has been lately, the upset is within reach for the Wildcats.
In four seconds, Jalen Suggs altered both Saturday's Final Four game with UCLA and college basketball history—and that's not even talking about his buzzer beater. (By Greg Bishop)
Jalen Suggs charted a new course at Gonzaga, a place that's rarely gone after NBA one-and-dones. It's paid off for both. (By Jeremy Woo)
This entire breathless masterpiece of Gonzaga-UCLA will go down as one of the greats in the history of college basketball. (By Pat Forde)
In a sizzling showing vs. Houston, Baylor showed off its top form while making a Final Four statement. (By Ross Dellenger)
Best Thing We Saw
Win or lose for Stanford, expect a big defensive night from freshman Cameron Brink—let’s mark her down for tying her personal high for blocked shots with six.
At the Buzzer
Before the Bruins' heartbreaking loss Saturday night, UCLA star Johnny Juzang got a surprise visit from his brother—who he hadn't seen in months. While they could not embrace due to COVID-19 bubble protocols, the moment was extremely heartwarming. —Molly Geary