Two No. 1 seeds fell Friday night in the 2021 women’s Final Four. Now two Pac-12 teams are headed to Sunday’s national championship game.
Behind a smothering defense and 26 points from senior point guard Aari McDonald, third-seeded Arizona upset No. 1 seed UConn 69-59 as the Huskies lost in the national semifinals for the fourth consecutive NCAA tournament. Paige Bueckers had 18 points and wrapped up her freshman season with 108 points in the NCAA tournament.
Stanford, the overall No. 1 seed, awaits after beating No. 1 seed South Carolina 66-65 on Friday in San Antonio. It’s the first time two Pac-12 teams will face off in the final, and the first championship game featuring two schools west of the Mississippi River since 1986.
Just 0.6% of all brackets in the Women’s Tournament Challenge correctly picked Stanford and Arizona to meet Sunday (6 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App) at the Alamodome. Of those brackets, 59.2% tabbed Stanford to win it all.
The Cardinal went 2-0 against the Wildcats in the regular season. How will that impact the title game? Can Arizona pull another upset? ESPN.com’s panel of Andrea Adelson, Charlie Creme and Mechelle Voepel weigh in with their first impressions of the championship game matchup.
Arizona pulled the upset of the tournament. Will the Wildcats — whose defense held UConn to a season-low 22 points at halftime and more turnovers (9) than made field goals (8) in the first two quarters — have any gas left in the tank after an emotionally and physically exhausting semifinal?
Creme: The Wildcats will be fine heading into Sunday’s title game because they take their cues from coach Adia Barnes, who seems calm and confident all the time. Her demeanor never seemed to change on the sidelines against UConn. For 40 minutes she gave off an air of positivity. Barnes’ relaxed approach to every huddle kept her team in the moment. The Wildcats seemed to be enjoying what they were doing rather than thinking about what it meant. That all comes from Barnes.
Arizona did something Friday that most thought impossible — hold the Huskies to fewer than 60 points. There might not have been one moment in this game where it felt like the Huskies were going to win. Arizona controlled this game from the outset and did it with defense. A UConn team that led the country with a nearly 52 percent shooting percentage shot 35.7 percent.
It also helps to have the tournament’s best player to lean upon when a play needs to be made. Having a player rolling like Aari McDonald takes the pressure off everyone else. Her two early 3-pointers sent a message to not only the Huskies, but also her teammates. A wave of confidence flowed through the entire team after that. McDonald’s play all night and her 26 total points helped keep that optimism high.
While I am confident Arizona will have plenty of energy for the championship game, history can always find a caveat. In 2017, Mississippi State executed a great defensive game plan against UConn in the Final Four, held the Huskies to 64 points in a stunning overtime upset — and couldn’t recover for the championship game. The Bulldogs looked gassed two nights later and South Carolina beat them fairly easily for the title.
The difference here is how Arizona won. The Wildcats weren’t fighting UConn on every possession in the fourth quarter like Mississippi State was. They also didn’t win the game on a buzzer-beating shot like the one Morgan William hit. Arizona was clearly the better team on Friday night for the entire 40 minutes.
Adelson: Charlie is right. Arizona was the better team and showed it within the first five minutes against the Huskies. The Wildcats played with a confidence about them, with an aggressiveness and superiority that a team like UConn usually plays with at this point in the season. The Wildcats took it to them from the beginning, and when the Huskies didn’t respond, Arizona kept going even harder.
That is why this is a team that is so fun to watch, and so easy to root for. Who doesn’t love an underdog story? Yes, Barnes is cool and calm and rarely betrays what she is feeling or thinking on the sideline, but there are also glimpses of what makes her someone her players love so much, like when she used some choice language late in the game in the huddle to tell her players to forget all their haters. That just makes the Wildcats go that much harder.
So will they have gas in the tank? Absolutely. There is something to be said for gaining confidence and momentum during a tournament run like the one Arizona has had this year. Barnes said as much in her postgame news conference, when she said her team became more united in San Antonio.
She also mentioned slights along the way — beyond getting left out of the NCAA Final Four promotional video — that have only served to motivate her team. Something tells me she is going to bring up the results of their two games against Stanford this year to put a little bit more fire into her team before Sunday night.
Voepel: I do have to say it’s almost eerie how much this is like 2017 — an underdog team knocking off UConn in the semifinals and then having to face a team from its own conference in the national championship game. As Charlie said, Mississippi State looked pretty worn out when it faced South Carolina for the title four years ago. But then-Bulldogs coach Vic Schaefer took a lot of blame for that. He said later that he felt that he didn’t get his team enough rest before the championship game.
Barnes understands her team and as a former player for many years, she has a good feel for how to gauge if they’re well-rested enough. I think it will be a battle Sunday, and I guarantee the Cardinal think that, too.
Stanford has set a record for most 3-pointers in a single women’s NCAA tournament, hitting 55 over five games. The Cardinal also outrebounded South Carolina for most of the game. How important are both those stats against Arizona in the title game?
Voepel: Stanford has been a great 3-point shooting team all season. The Cardinal entered Friday’s game averaging 9.1 made 3-pointers per game, but only attempted eight vs. South Carolina, making five. Stanford was averaging 23.6 3-point attempts coming into the game.
Stanford managed to pull out the one-point win against the Gamecocks even without one of its main weapons. But it will likely be a major focus of Stanford in the national championship game.
Kiana Williams has been Stanford’s leading 3-point shooter this season, but she had a rough night shooting Friday, going 4 of 14 from the field and missing her only 3-point attempt. Hannah Jump is the Cardinal’s second best from long range, with 57 this season. But Jump played only 2 minutes Friday, which is reflective of Stanford’s depth and the fact that she probably wasn’t the best matchup defensively with South Carolina.
So it could be a different-looking game Sunday against Arizona, and 3-pointers could be a much bigger factor for the Cardinal.
Creme: The rebounding is important because it can set up so many other areas that make Stanford so good. The transition game, controlling the tempo, creating more opportunities, even many of those 3-point shots come as a result of controlling the glass.
Stanford finished the game with 24 second-chance points, matching the total that the Gamecocks had allowed in their first four NCAA tournament games combined. That’s the stat that had the biggest impact on the game. Stanford turned those trips down the floor into longer possessions. That put increased pressure on the South Carolina defense and removed pressure on Stanford to make every play perfect. Look at how aggressively Lexie Hull kept driving to the basket. She ended up 4 of 17 from the field, but she was confident that the Cardinal could get any misses.
The single biggest play of the game was a second-chance opportunity with 32 seconds remaining. Haley Jones recovered one of those Hull misses on a drive to the basket and made a 12-footer that ended up being the game’s final points and difference-maker.
It’s not a strategy Stanford can depend on against Arizona; you can’t plan on getting so many second-chance opportunities. Even in two comfortable wins over the Wildcats during the regular season, the Cardinal totaled 19 second-chance points. Rebounding will still be a huge key. The more possessions Stanford has, the less time McDonald will have her hands on the ball for Arizona.
Adelson: I also expect the game against Arizona to look different than it did against South Carolina, and I believe the Cardinal’s 3-point shooting might end up being the biggest key. Arizona did a terrific job inside against UConn, holding the Huskies to a season-low 18 points in the paint and 31 percent shooting in that area, according to ESPN Stats & Information. (The Huskies entered the game averaging more than 42 points in the paint this season.)
When things are not going well inside, outside shooting has to be the key to opening everything up. But UConn couldn’t really do that, either, only hitting five 3-pointers. So if Arizona has similar success against Stanford inside, popping some 3s will be a huge key. Especially since McDonald has made 15 3-pointers in her last three NCAA tournament games.
If she keeps hitting from 3 the way that she has (15-of-27), Stanford is going to have to find ways to keep up.
Stanford and Arizona are very familiar with each other. The Cardinal swept the Wildcats in two regular-season meetings, winning by a combined 41 points — 81-54 in Tucson, Arizona, on Jan. 1, and 62-48 at Stanford on Feb. 22. What will be different this time and who is the early favorite?
Adelson: Stanford remains the favorite, but I expect this game to be closer than the first two matchups — not only because McDonald has found her groove and Arizona as a group has gained confidence. Barnes said something in her postgame news conference after the UConn win that really stuck with me: “Being like a top-10 team or being a top-12 team, it’s a little bit harder than it is to be an unranked team chasing and trying to get wins,” Barnes said. She felt all the pressure was on UConn, and her team could play freer and looser.
In the national championship game, all the pressure will once again be on the opponent. Stanford is the No. 1 overall seed and will be a heavy favorite to win its first national title in 29 years. This is not the same Arizona team that it played and beat this year, and Stanford cannot afford to overlook the Wildcats for that reason. I anticipate this will be a much better defensive effort from Arizona, based on what we have seen throughout the tournament.
And now, Arizona knows what it takes to win big games like this.
Creme: Stanford still has to be considered the favorite. Those were convincing wins, and the Cardinal’s defense was the story in both.
But anyone who has been watching this tournament can tell this is a different Arizona team than the one that was playing in February. And the reason is pretty simple: McDonald’s shooting. She was a 30% percent 3-point shooter before the NCAA tournament. In the Big Dance, McDonald is making 49% from deep and averaging 25.4 points. In Arizona’s last three games, against No. 2 seed Texas A&M, No. 4 seed Indiana and No. 1 seed UConn, she is averaging 30 points per game. She averaged 19.3 during the regular season. The opponents have gotten better, but McDonald has as well.
If Arizona is to win on Sunday, her fortunes against the Cardinal will have to take an even greater jump forward. Stanford had a formula to slow her down. In the two games, McDonald combined to shoot 11-for-46 from the field and 1-of-12 from 3-point range, scoring a total of 32 points. Her shooting range seems to have jumped back about 5 feet in the last three weeks, but Cardinal guards Anna Wilson and Kiana Williams should be able to push McDonald back a bit further because the fear of getting beat off the dribble shouldn’t be as great with the length Stanford has on the back end of its defense. Cameron Brink, a 6-foot-4 freshman forward, displayed how well she can protect the basket with six blocks against South Carolina. At 6-5, sophomore Ashten Prechtel can be a problem for Arizona, too.
Sunday’s final score should be closer as well, but defense will continue to be the storyline. That’s a constant for both teams and perhaps where Stanford doesn’t get enough credit. The question will be whether McDonald has one more brilliant game left in her.
Voepel: As great as McDonald has been, there’s a blue-collar success story inside for the Wildcats, too. Forwards Sam Thomas, Cate Reese and Trinity Baptiste combined for 30 points and 12 rebounds against UConn, and they held Huskies’ starting forwards Aaliyah Edwards (3 of 6 from the field) and Olivia Nelson-Ododa (0 of 7) to a combined nine points. Stanford has a lot of big bodies like Brink, Prechtel and Fran Belibi inside, but the Arizona posts are not going to be intimidated by anything.
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