Sports

Stanford’s ‘Sisterhood’ — And Its Sisters — Won The Cardinal A Title

In December, Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer became the all-time winningest coach in women’s college basketball, passing the late Tennessee legend Pat Summitt. Yet at the moment she recorded her milestone 1,099th win, VanDerveer hadn’t won a national championship in 29 years.

That drought ended Sunday when her Cardinal, the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed, defeated Arizona by the skin of their teeth, 54-53. Sophomore Haley Jones, the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, led the way with 17 points and eight rebounds, but it was a true team effort. Eleven players took the court, with six scoring at least 5 points and six grabbing at least four rebounds. The latter gave the Cardinal a plus-18 margin on the glass, which was enough to overcome an uncharacteristic 21 turnovers in the face of Arizona’s defensive pressure.

“I really feel like we won this for all of the great players that have played at Stanford,” VanDerveer said after the game. “Going back to, we went to three Elite Eights and never made it to a Final Four with great players like Candice Wiggins, Brooke Smith, Jillian Harmon. Then we got to the Final Four with Candice and Ros [Gold-Onwude] and Nneka and Chiney [Ogwumike] and Jayne Appel. … Since then, going to the Final Four with great players like Erica McCall and Karlie Samuelson. …

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“These women are kind of on the shoulders of those women. … I’m just thrilled for this team, but also for all the women out there that played at Stanford.”

It was only fitting that VanDerveer’s championship drought ended against Pac-12 rival Arizona. VanDerveer has worked throughout her career to elevate the conference, consistently praising rival teams and pushing for more national recognition, and the recruiting wins and television exposure have followed. She has mentored Arizona’s Adia Barnes, the coach on the opposite sideline on Sunday, and countless others.

So VanDerveer was rooting for Arizona to make the national championship game on Friday night, even though she knew that stopping Wildcats star and Pac-12 Player of the Year Aari McDonald would be a big challenge. She got her wish, setting up the first all-Pac-12 national championship game in women’s NCAA basketball history and just the seventh championship game to feature two teams from the same conference. “This is not something a lot of people could have imagined 10 years ago, 15 years ago, 20 years ago,” VanDerveer said over the weekend.

Even in Sunday’s postgame press conference, VanDerveer spotlighted the Pac-12, insisting that she hadn’t thought about her individual title drought but was “really excited to take the trophy back to the Pac-12.”

McDonald, who entered Sunday’s final averaging 30.0 points over her past three games, was as advertised, scoring 22 points against a Cardinal defense that ranks eighth nationally in points allowed per 100 possessions. The difference in the game, according to VanDerveer and several Stanford players, came down to the Cardinal’s “sisterhood.”

In one instance, that is a literal sisterhood: Junior twins Lexie and Lacie Hull have been critical to Stanford’s success this season on both sides of the ball. Lexie was named to the All-Pac-12 team and the women’s Final Four all-tournament team, while Lacie was the Pac-12’s Sixth Player of the Year. Against Arizona, Lexie scored the game’s first 2 points and had 8 points and six rebounds in the first half, and Lacie helped steady the Cardinal off the bench.

“They’re two people you absolutely want on your team,” senior Kiana Williams said after the first two rounds of the tournament. “They play hard. They push me to play harder. And then I feel like since the tournament has started, they’ve been talking a lot more, especially to our younger players. Lacie’s coming in off the bench, but I hear her yelling and screaming out different defenses and things like that. And Lexie, she’s just a baller, she’s a gamer, knocks down big shots, does whatever our team needs her to do. So extremely grateful that both of them are playing for Stanford.”

The Hulls are just the latest sisters to suit up for VanDerveer, following in the footsteps of players such as the Ogwumikes — who were in the stands on Sunday — and Bonnie and Karlie Samuelson. But the Hulls are the only ones in that group — and the first sisters in at least 15 years — to win a national championship together. 

Yet Stanford’s sisterhood extends beyond the Hulls, and this championship edition was built over months of uncertainty during the COVID-19 pandemic. VanDerveer credited her players for organizing small-group Zoom sessions to get to know one another and avoid cliques on the team. The bonds among the players only intensified when they played on the road for nine weeks after Santa Clara County banned contact sports, celebrating Christmas in a hotel and weathering a few practices in the dark because of power outages.

“There was a point where — I don’t even know that I should admit this — but I was like, I don’t know that we can keep doing this,” VanDerveer said this week. “… There were some days where I just said, ‘Whoa, this, might be too much. We might have to just take a pause.’”

It’s important not to romanticize the Cardinal’s road trip, which came only because local officials decided it was unsafe to play basketball in the county while COVID-19 cases were skyrocketing. But it is significant that the Stanford athletic department reacted by investing more in its women’s basketball team, just like it did for its men’s team. The players responded with an admirable commitment to each other and to being the best team they could be. And they drew from that experience for their three-week stay in San Antonio during the NCAA Tournament.

Speaking to ESPN’s Holly Rowe postgame, Williams drew a direct line between the bonds her team forged on its road trip and the resilience it showed in its final three NCAA Tournament wins. Stanford clawed back from a 12-point halftime deficit against Louisville in the Elite Eight, eked out a 1-point win over South Carolina in the Final Four after being both down 9 and up 9 at various points in the game, and survived a potential game-winning shot from McDonald on Sunday.

“This team to me has been a team of sisterhood. And a sisterhood — if you aren’t really a family, if you don’t really care about each other, 100 days on the road could really get old,” VanDerveer said last week. “But we’re going into our third week and … it’s great to be around these young women. And I think they really enjoy being around each other. … And so basketball then, when you’re out there, is more than just passing to somebody; you’re playing hard for each other.”

With Sunday’s win, VanDerveer earned her 1,125th career win and her third national title. But her triumphs on Sunday go beyond a championship trophy: She led a team that couldn’t even practice in its home gym for much of the year to the most wins and minutes played in Division I this season. Zero Stanford players tested positive for COVID-19 during the season. VanDerveer realized her vision of the Pac-12 becoming the best conference in the country in a championship game for the ages. And she continues to inspire other coaches — especially women — to follow in her footsteps.

“I’m trying to build a program like Tara has, build a program like Geno [Auriemma at UConn] and Dawn [Staley at South Carolina], all the other trailblazers in this profession,” Barnes said after the game. “I’m not satisfied with just being here, being in the tournament; I want to build a program where you’re surprised when they don’t win. Like when you look at Tara, Geno, Dawn, it’s surprising if they don’t win a championship; it’s a disappointment.”

There was no disappointment in the Stanford locker room on Sunday night. In a season in which VanDerveer climbed to the top of the podium in career wins, it was only fitting that she and her team of sisters ended up on top for the first time in nearly three decades.

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