If Sunday night’s women’s NCAA Tournament final (6 p.m. EST, ESPN) is anything like the pair of semifinal games that preceded it, we’re all in for one final treat.
Top-seeded Stanford will face upstart No. 3 seed Arizona, led by coach Adia Barnes and senior guard Aari McDonald. Arizona knocked off powerhouse Connecticut with a decisive victory Friday night.
A final Goliath stands in their way of pulling off one of the more remarkable turnarounds in women’s basketball history (the Wildcats went 6-24 in 2017-18).
Of course, Stanford is coached by the legendary Tara VanDerveer, who became the sport’s all-time winningest coach in December. Sophomore forward Haley Jones, “the unicorn,” is a force on both ends of the court. The Cardinal escaped fellow No. 1 seed South Carolina in the semifinals and are trying to end a championship drought that extends back to 1992. Arizona has never played for the women’s championship, and the program snapped a 16-year tournament drought in 2021.
The game will cap a tournament that has been as exciting on the court as it was essential — players and coaches have highlighted the inequities that remain in college athletics (and the sports world at large) all month long.
Follow along with USA TODAY Sports as Stanford and Arizona battle for the 2021 women’s NCAA Tournament title.
Tara VanDerveer makes NCAA history
This is the Stanford coach’s third national title and first since leading the Cardinal to the mountaintop in 1992. According to ESPN Stats & Info, the 29-year championship gap is the longest in Division I men’s or women’s history.
She’s also the fourth coach to win three national titles.
Haley Jones wins Most Outstanding Player
The sophomore led the Cardinal with 17 points and added eight rebounds while going 8-for-14 from the floor.
“We just had strength in each other,” Jones said during a postgame interview.
Stanford beats Arizona for the 2021 championship
The most exciting tournament of the past month provided a fitting end.
Stanford holds off Arizona to win the 2021 NCAA women’s basketball tournament — the Cardinal’s first title in nearly three decades (1992).
Arizona had one a chance on the final possession to win on a buzzer beater, but Stanford triple-teamed Aari McDonald once she received the inbounds pass, and her last-second shot from deep did not fall.
Arizona will have ball for the championship
The Wildcats forced a shot-clock violation, Stanford’s 21st turnover of the game. The Cardinal didn’t get a shot off after taking the entire shot clock down.
Arizona will have 6.1 seconds left. Arizona coach Adia Barnes called timeout to set up the final play.
The ball has to be going to Aari McDonald, right?
Stanford, Arizona coming down to wire
With 36.6 remaining, Stanford currently leads Arizona 54-53 after a pair of Aari McDonald free throws. Stanford ball.
Close finish coming up
There’s Aari McDonald! With 14 second-half points, including a 3-pointer that cut the deficit to one (51-50) inside of four minutes, the senior guard has her team on the cusp of overtaking the top-seeded team. There is 2:43 left in the game. It’s a 10-2 run for the Wildcats, as the Cardinal simply cannot put Arizona away.
Stanford’s Haley Jones takes over
Always consistent, Haley Jones is obviously making her impact when it matters most. Despite a trio of turnovers, she leads the Cardinal with 14 points (7 of 12 shooting) and seven rebounds.
Lexie Hull is up to a double-double (10 points, 10 rebounds) but also has four fouls.
Arizona makes comeback
The Wildcats cut the lead to three at two points and trail the Cardinal 43-40 entering the fourth quarter.
Aari McDonald is 3-for-15 from the floor (and still has 13 points), but the Wildcats are turning defense into offense, sinking transition layups in the third. Arizona has 10 steals and Stanford has coughed it up 17 times.
Overall, though, Arizona has been unable to capitalize.
Stanford holding lead
As the third quarter progresses, Stanford has maintained a lead around 10 points. The Cardinal are shooting 50 percent (4-for-8) from three.
Arizona, shooting less than 30 percent from the field as a team, has gone cold from the floor again (4-for-13 from beyond the arc) .
Russell Wilson loves Anna Wilson’s three
A proud big brother.
Read more about Anna Wilson here.
HALFTIME: Stanford 31, Arizona 24
Once Arizona took the lead, Stanford stepped on the gas and peeled off an 11-0 run to take a 10-point lead before the Wildcats cut it back to seven as the first half expired. Lexie Hull is up to eight points and six rebounds to lead a balanced scoring effort for the Cardinal, and she converted a clutch four-point play late in the half.
Stanford is still crushing Arizona on the boards 26-14 and has seven assists compared to the Wildcats’ two.
The biggest issue for the Wildcats is the lack of offensive production from Aari McDonald, who will need to make some shots in the second half. She’s 2-for-11 to start.
The Wildcats have succeeded by turning the Cardinal over 9-3.
Arizona battles back for lead
The Wildcats have clawed back to take a 21-20 lead with 4:44 left before halftime.
Stanford’s Ashten Prechtel, the 6-foot-5 forward, has seven points off the bench to lead all scorers.
Aari McDonald (two assists, two steals) missed five straight shots after making her first attempt. The Wildcats have now made three 3-pointers and five of their last seven shots.
Cardinal cool off, lead after 1st
After the first 10 minutes, Stanford holds a 16-8 lead.
Stanford started off hot and took a 12-3 lead hardly four minutes into the game, but the Wildcats tightened up on defense, especially in the paint, and held the Cardinal to four more points the rest of the quarter.
The issue for Arizona was the inability to get anything going on offense; the Wildcats are 3-for-19 from the field (2-for-10 from 3-point range). Stanford is keeping Arizona off the glass for the most part,
Stanford out to hot start
Less than four minutes into the game, Stanford jumped out to a 12-3 lead, showcasing the offense on the interior (Lexie Hull, Cameron Brink) and a 3-pointer by Kiana Williams.
Aari McDonald nailed a three to start the scoring for the Wildcats.
NFL stars choose squads
Zach Ertz is pulling for his Stanford Cardinal.
But J.J. Watt is rooting for his new “hometown” team.
Stanford: Anna Wilson, Kiana Williams, Haley Jones, Cameron Brink, Lexie Hull
Arizona: Aari McDonald, Bendu Yeaney, Trinity Baptiste, Sam Thomas, Cate Reese
Tipoff is moments away on ESPN.
Stanford’s Kiana Williams soaks in pregame scene
ESPN’s Holly Rowe posted a tweet of Cardinal guard Kiana Williams, who grew up 12 miles from the Alamodome, stretching alone on the court more than an hour before the game.
Predictions for women’s championship game
Four staff members have made their best guesses how tonight will go. Here’s how they see it going down:
Lindsay Schnell: Stanford 84, Arizona 73
Heather Tucker: Stanford 77, Arizona 70
Nancy Armour: Arizona 63, Stanford 60
Ellen Horrow: Stanford 70, Arizona 62
Adia Barnes not apologizing
In the moments after the UConn upset, ESPN cameras captured Barnes leading her team in an “enthusiastic” celebration featuring a finger.
Here’s was she had to say about it all (from Saturday morning):
“I honestly had a moment with my team, and I thought it was a more intimate huddle,” Barnes said. “I said to my team something that I truly felt and I know they felt, and it just appeared different on TV, but I’m not apologizing for it because I don’t feel like I need to apologize. It’s what I felt with my team at the moment. I wouldn’t take it back. We’ve gone to war together. We believe in each other. So I’m in those moments, and that’s how I am, so I don’t apologize for doing that. I’m just me, and I have to just be me.”
After all, the Wildcats entered the Final Four matchup feeling slighted by the NCAA.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Stanford beats Arizona: Updates, from women’s NCAA championship game