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How Stanford's Championship Resiliency Was Built by a Season on the Road

The Cardinal women played just six of their 33 games on their campus due to local COVID-19 restrictions. Those weeks of travel and bonding while living out of hotels define the program's first title in 29 years.

SAN ANTONIO — As Aari McDonald released her final shot—a last-second, potential championship-winning prayer of a three-pointer—Tara VanDerveer flashed back.

The Stanford coach did not think of her wait, denied a national title for almost three decades; she did not think of her legacy, the winningest coach in the history of women’s college basketball; she did not think of her season, spent almost entirely away from home in a grueling, weeks-long, pandemic-mandated road trip. Instead, she thought of the ending of a game from Feb. 22, 2019. A highly ranked Stanford team had almost been surprised by a rebuilding Arizona program. And the would-be game-winning shot had looked just like this one, taken by the same player—at the time, just a redshirt sophomore, not yet a tournament hero or a shooter with a reputation for making hearts stop and defenses crumble.

Two years ago, McDonald’s shot had rimmed out. Now, VanDerveer watched and hoped that she might be so lucky again.

“It was,” the coach says, “the longest second.”

But it passed, and with it, so too did the title drought that had held her in its grips at Stanford since 1992—seemingly against reason, through teams loaded with talent, with deep tournament runs ended by freakish injuries or mysterious collapses or simple bad luck. Here, instead, the luck was good, and the final shot was not: Stanford 54, Arizona 53

Stanford wins the 2021 NCAA women's basketball championship

No one on this team was born when VanDerveer won her last championship at Stanford. (She won in both 1990 and 1992.) But this squad, she says, reminds her of all the ones that had passed through campus in the decades since.

“These women stand on the shoulders of those women,” she says. “And former players would be so proud to be on this team, because of the resilience they’ve showed, because of the sisterhood they represent.”

Stanford, the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament, was uncharacteristically sloppy at times in Sunday’s championship game. It had 21 turnovers and built multiple double-digit leads over the course of the night, only to see them disappear. But what saved the Cardinal in the end was the same quality that has been their greatest strength all season—their depth. Of the 12 players who were available, 11 logged multiple minutes in the final. (The 12th, Agnes Emma-Nnopu, was “big cheering,” says senior Kiana Williams.) The standout, as it has so often been in this tournament, was do-it-all guard Haley Jones. But the shine was distributed around the roster.

“That’s what we hung our hats on all year long,” Williams says. “Every game someone different stepped up. … We needed all 11 players that stepped in.”

Stanford women's basketball players celebrate their NCAA championship

There was a point this winter, VanDerveer confesses, that she wondered whether her team should be playing at all.

When Santa Clara County announced on Nov. 28 that it would be prohibiting contact sports for at least three weeks due to rising local COVID-19 cases, Stanford had played just one game. Without knowing exactly where it would be going or how long it would be gone, the team packed its bags and hit the road, the rest of its season uncertain. Its next three games—all originally scheduled to be played at home—were either canceled or postponed while it tried to find somewhere to settle in.

It soon became clear that it wouldn’t be able to stay in one place for long. It would start in Las Vegas, where it had already been scheduled to play UNLV in early December, and where the coach, former Stanford assistant Lindy La Rocque, agreed to let the Cardinal use the gym for a week. But after that? Well, they’d have to just figure it out as they went.

“Tara talked about it in the locker room today, how she didn’t tell us it was going to be a 10-week journey,” Jones reflected on Sunday. “She said, you’re going to have one week in Vegas, and who knows? One week in Arizona, a week in L.A. It was just a long, very difficult journey. Being on the road, sleeping in hotels, living out of your bag, it’s just a lot. You’re on the bus, you’re on planes all the time. There was just never really an end in sight.”

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In December, Santa Clara County extended its ban on contact sports, so Stanford was left on the road for even longer. During one stretch, it did not have a quality facility to practice in, so it worked out in a high school gym. “There were a couple times where the power wasn’t even working,” says freshman Cameron Brink, “so we were practicing in the dark.” They lived off food delivery apps. And they spent their time—all of their time—together as a group or completely alone. For 10 weeks, no one could have sustained interactions with anyone outside the team.

It made for a strange (and strangely powerful) sort of team bonding. The older players organized small-group talks with the younger ones about how they were dealing and what they might be able to do to make it easier on each other. “I didn’t expect when we went on the road for three weeks that it was going to turn into what it was,” says senior Anna Wilson. “But then it was better than I could have imagined.” VanDerveer says she saw the whole team begin to take on some of the sisterhood that she saw between twin guards Lexie and Lacie Hull.

“Having sisters on your team is so beneficial,” she says. “And this team, to me, has been a team of sisterhood. If you aren’t really a family, if you don’t really care about each other, 100 days on the road could get really old.”

What had been a tough, talented group from the start became “grittier,” Brink says. And the cohesion that developed from all of its time together played into what had always been its biggest asset: a roster that had been constructed for balance—to rely on a rotating cast of characters all over the floor and from the bench—became closer than it ever could have imagined at the start of the season. 

Stanford players celebrate after the final buzzer

“I use the analogy of an orchestra,” VanDerveer says. “There’s going to be different solos every night and, you know, we’ve gotten different solos. But the best thing is that when someone is doing a solo, the other members of the orchestra are still playing—they’re not putting their instruments down.”

On the road, Stanford gained and lost the No. 1 ranking in the country, and VanDerveer broke the record as the game’s all-time winningest coach. Finally, in February, the team was able to return home. But its experience on the road would continue to pay dividends in March—when it had to adjust to “bubble life” for the tournament in San Antonio. Every college basketball program this year needed to isolate from friends and family to some degree to play. But no other program that made it to the NCAA tournament bubbles had needed to get acclimated to staying in a hotel room with minimal time outside for weeks on end. As other teams spoke of difficulties adjusting to the environment, the Cardinal had no complaints: They’d been doing this for most of the year, and this time, at least, they knew it would be over in less than three weeks.

Even the defining story from the early days of the bubble didn’t hit the Cardinal in quite the same way that it did other teams. It was Stanford sports performance coach Ali Kershner who posted the initial photograph showing disparities between the weight room provided for the men in Indianapolis and the “weight room” (see: rack of dumbbells and pile of yoga mats) for the women in San Antonio. The NCAA eventually addressed the outcry by upgrading the facilities. Even if it hadn’t, however, Stanford felt that its team would be fine.

“If we have to lift some books or something, we’ll make stuff happen,” Williams said in the first round of the tournament. “Because we’ve lived out of a hotel for 10 weeks, and we’ve lived without a full weight room. So we know how to adjust.”

They’d have to adjust multiple times throughout the tournament. Despite Stanford’s stellar regular season—its only two losses came back-to-back in demanding Pac-12 play toward the end of its road trip—its tourney was full of close calls. It came back from a double-digit deficit against Louisville in the Elite Eight and survived a last-second buzzer-beater attempt from South Carolina in the Final Four. In the final, the Cardinal had the tall order of shutting down McDonald, and, in what became a game of runs, they escaped by only a single point. But in a tough season that had to be taken one day at a time—by government-mandated necessity rather than by the typical coach-speak—it was an oddly fitting championship run.

“We just had something extra to us this year,” Jones says. “I think it came from just being resilient from all the things we went through. As we came through the tournament, I don't think we showed our best in all the games—any of the games. I don't think we really were like, this is the best game we've ever played. I think we've had good halves, good moments, great moments. I think it just shows we're going to tough it out. We're going to stick with it. We're resilient. We're gritty.”

Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer poses with the trophy

Back in September, when the Cardinal players arrived on campus for the year, they were instructed to wait through a five-day quarantine period before interacting with one another. On the fourth day, however, they broke the rules: They snuck away to an off-campus gym to play some pickup. They hadn’t been able to train all spring or summer due to COVID-19, and with one day to go, they decided that they couldn’t wait any longer. When VanDerveer found out, she did not seem mad. Instead, Williams says, their coach was “heartbroken.” It was difficult to face—and since it sent the players back into quarantine, an even longer one this time, they had plenty of time to think about it.

But the protocol violation triggered a shift into the mindset that would set the standard for their year. “That really set a tone that said, We’re going to be honest, we’re going to be trustworthy and we need all of that from all of us,” VanDerveer says. And as Williams sat in quarantine, thinking about the pain that she had caused her coach, she thought about what she could do to make it up to her. First, she’d have to rededicate herself as a senior leader to set a better example for her teammates. Next, she figured, she’d have to help win a national championship.

The team did not publicly reveal the illicit pickup game all season—rule-breaking that had cut into its preseason training time with its consequent extended quarantine period. But Williams shared the story on Sunday night, wearing a championship net as a necklace, reflecting on all that had gotten her there.

“I feel like it was worth it,” she said, laughing, “going to play that pickup game.”

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