Both No. 1 seeds lost Friday night in the 2021 Women’s Final Four. Now two Pac-12 teams head to Sunday’s national championship game.
Behind a stellar defense and 26 points from senior point guard Aari McDonald, third-year Arizona was able to defeat No. 1 seeded UConn, 69-59, while the Huskies lost for the fourth year in a row in the NCAA Tournament national semifinals. Paige Buchers scored 18 points and finished her freshman season with 108 points in the NCAA tournament.
Stanford, the No. 1 seed, awaits after a 66-65 win over South Carolina on Friday in San Antonio. The final will be the first meeting between the two Pac-12 teams and the first championship game between two schools west of the Mississippi River since 1986.
Only 0.6 percent of all women’s tournament brackets correctly listed Stanford and Arizona as playing against each other Sunday (6 p.m. ET, ESPN / ESPN App) in the Alamodome. In 59.2 percent of these brackets, Stanford is the winner.
In the regular season, the Cardinals won 2-0 over the Wildcats. How will this affect the title race? Can Arizona provide another surprise? ESPN.com’s panel of Andrea Adelson, Charlie Crema and Mechel Voypel give their first impressions of the championship game.
Arizona has disrupted the tournament. Will the Wildcats, whose defense limited UConn to 22 points and more turnovers (nine) than in the first two quarters at halftime, have some gas in the tank after an emotionally and physically taxing semifinal?
Cream: The Wildcats are perfect for Sunday’s championship game thanks to the leadership of coach Adia Barnes, who always comes across as calm and confident. Their attitude never seemed to change on the sidelines against UConn. For 40 minutes, she breathed positivity. Barnes’ relaxed approach to each scrimmage kept his team in the moment. The wild cats seemed to be enjoying what they were doing instead of thinking about what it meant. It’s all Barnes.
Arizona managed what most thought impossible on Friday: holding the Huskies to less than 60 points. There was probably not a moment in this game that it looked like the Huskies were going to win. Arizona controlled this game from the start and did so mostly defensively. UConn, which led the country with a shooting percentage of nearly 52 percent, shot 35.7 percent.
It also lets the best player in the tournament lean on him when he needs to make a play. A player who rolls like McDonald takes the pressure off everyone else. Her first two 3-point shots were not only a message to the Huskies, but also to her teammates. After that, a wave of confidence engulfed the entire team. McDonald’s played all night and their 26 points helped keep the optimism alive.
While I’m sure Arizona will have plenty of energy for the championship game, history can always find a downside. In 2017, Mississippi State executed a great defensive game plan against UConn in the Final Four and held the Huskies to 64 points in a stunning overtime loss – and never recovered for the Championship Game. The Bulldogs looked exhausted two nights later, and South Carolina beat them pretty easily for the title.
The difference here is how Arizona won. The Wildcats didn’t fight for every UConn possession in the fourth quarter like they did for Mississippi State. They also didn’t win the game with a buzzer-beater like Morgan William of the Bulldogs. Arizona was clearly the better team for all 40 minutes of Friday night.
Aari McDonald scored 26 points and led Arizona to its first NCAA championship game. UConn freshman Paige Buchers finished the NCAA Tournament with 108 points, which ranks third in points per section. Elsa/Getty Images
Adelson: Charlie’s right. Arizona was the better team and showed it in the first five minutes against the Huskies. The Wildcats played with the confidence, aggressiveness and excellence that a team like UConn normally plays with at this point in the season. The Wildcats took control early and when the Huskies failed to respond, Arizona took an even bigger lead.
That’s why this team is so much fun to watch and cheer for. Who doesn’t love a story about a loser? Yes, Barnes is cold and quiet and rarely lets on what she’s feeling or thinking, but there are glimpses of what makes her someone her players love so much, like when she tells her players with well-chosen words late in the game that they should forget about all their haters. That only makes the Wildcats stronger.
So you got gas in the tank? Absolutely. There is something to be said for gaining confidence and momentum at a tournament like this year’s in Arizona. Barnes said this in his post-game press conference, saying his team had found better cohesion in San Antonio.
She also mentioned slides along the way – aside from the one in the NCAA Final Four promo video – that only motivated her team. Something tells me she will use the results of the two games against Stanford this year to give her team a boost for Sunday night.
Voepel: I have to say, it’s almost weird, just like in 2017 – a losing team beats UConn in the semifinals and then plays a team from their own conference in the National Championship Game. Like Charlie said, Mississippi State looked pretty battered when they played against South Carolina for the title four years ago. But then Bulldogs coach Vic Schaefer took a lot of the blame. He went on to say that he felt his team did not get enough rest before the championship game.
Barnes understands her team, and as a former player, she knows how to assess whether they are adequately rested. I think a battle will break out on Sunday, and I guarantee you the Cardinal will feel the same way.
Stanford and South Carolina battled until the final minute, when the Gamecocks fell just short of winning at the buzzer.
Stanford set the record for most three-pointers in a single women’s NCAA Tournament game with 55 in five games. The Cardinals also played better than South Carolina for most of the game. How important are these two statistics in the title game against Arizona?
Voepel: Stanford has been a good 3-point shooter team all season. The Cardinals entered Friday’s game averaging 9.1 three-pointers per game, but had just eight attempts against South Carolina, five of which were successful. Stanford is averaging 23.6 three-point attempts.
Stanford managed to win by one point over the Gamecocks, even without one of their key weapons. But that will likely be Stanford’s main focus in the national championship game.
Kiana Williams has been Stanford’s best shooter this season, but she had a tough night on Friday, making 4-of-14 field goals and missing her only three-point attempt. Hannah Jump is the Cardinals’ second leading catcher with 57 units this season. But Jump only played two minutes Friday, reflecting Stanford’s depth and the fact that defensively he probably wasn’t the best opponent against South Carolina.
So Sunday’s game against Arizona could have gone differently, and the three-pointer could have been a much bigger factor for the Cardinals.
Cream: The pay raise is important because it identifies many other areas in which Stanford excels. The transition game, tempo management, creating more chances, even many of those 3-point shots are the result of controlling the glass.
Stanford finished the game with 24 second-chance points, as many as the Gamecocks had allowed in their first four games in the NCAA Tournament. Those stats had the biggest impact on the game. Stanford turned those trips into longer sessions. That put more pressure on the South Carolina defense and took the pressure off of Stanford to make every perfect play. Watch Lexi Hull continue to aggressively go to the basket. In the end, she went 4-for-17 from the field, but she was confident the Cardinals would make every miss.
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The biggest play of the game was a second chance with 32 seconds left. Haley Jones took advantage of one of Hull’s mistakes and shot to the basket with a 3-yard shot that proved to be the final point and the difference in the game.
That’s not a strategy Stanford can count on against Arizona; you can’t count on that many second chances. Even in two comfortable wins over the Wildcats in the regular season, the Cardinals scored 19 second chance points. Rebooting will always be a big key. The more Stanford has the ball, the less time McDonald will have to keep it for Arizona.
Adelson: I also expect the game against Arizona to be different than the one against South Carolina, and I think the Cardinals’ three-pointers will be the biggest key. Arizona did an excellent job against UConn, allowing the Huskies to score just 18 points on offense and shooting 31 percent from that area, according to ESPN Stats & Information. (The Huskies have averaged over 42 points in offense this season).
If things aren’t going well on the inside, shooting from the outside has to be the key to unlocking everything. But UConn couldn’t do it either, making just five three-pointers. So if Arizona has as much success against Stanford, a couple of three-pointers will be key. Especially since McDonald has made 15 three-pointers in his last three games in the NCAA tournament.
If they continue to shoot so well from 3 (15 of 27), Stanford will have to find ways to keep up.
Stanford and Arizona know each other well. The Cardinals defeated the Wildcats in two regular season meetings by a total of 41 points – 81-54 in Tucson, Arizona, on Jan. 1 and 62-48 in 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, and not just because McDonald has found his groove and Arizona has gained confidence as a group. Barnes said something in his press conference after the UConn win that really stuck with me: Being a top-10 or top-12 team is a little harder than being a flawless team that races and tries to win, Barnes said. She felt that all the pressure was on UConn and that her team could play more freely and unattached.
In the national championship game, all the pressure will be on the opponent again. Stanford is ranked No. 1 and is considered a heavy favorite to win its first national title in 29 years. This is not the team Arizona has played and won against this year, and Stanford cannot afford to overlook the Wildcats for that reason. I expect a much better Arizona defense based on what we saw during the tournament.
And now Arizona knows what it takes to win such games.
ESPN Statistics and Information
Cream: Stanford should always be considered the favorite. These were convincing wins, and the Cardinals defense was the backbone of both wins.
But anyone who has watched this tournament can see that this is a different Arizona team than the one that played in February. And the reason is very simple: Shooting at McDonald’s. Prior to the NCAA tournament, she was a 30% 3-point shooter. In the Big Dance, McDonald is shooting 49 percent from long range and is averaging 25.4 points. Arizona is averaging 30 points per game in its last three games against No. 2 seeded Texas A&M, No. 4 seeded Indiana and No. 1 seeded UConn. During the regular season, the average was 19.3. Opponents have improved, but so has McDonald.
If Arizona wins Sunday, Luck will have to make an even bigger leap against the Cardinals. Stanford had a formula to slow him down. In the two regular season games, McDonald shot 11-of-46 from the field and 1-of-12 from 3-point range for a total of 32 points. Their shooting guard seems to have been set back a yard over the past three weeks, but Cardinal guards Anna Wilson and Kiana Williams should be able to set McDonald back a little further, as the fear of being held off the dribble shouldn’t be as great as the length of Stanford’s defense. Cameron Brink, a 6-foot-6 freshman forward, showed how well she can defend the basket with six blocks against South Carolina. Ashten Prechtel, 6-foot-6, could also be a problem for Arizona.
Sunday’s final score should also be closer, but defense will continue to be the common thread. That’s a constant for both teams and that’s probably where Stanford doesn’t get enough credit. The question will be whether McDonald has another brilliant game.
Voepel: As great as McDonald’s is, there’s also a Wildcats success story. Forwards Sam Thomas, Kate Reese and Trinity Baptiste combined for 30 points and 12 rebounds against UConn, while Huskies starting forwards Alia Edwards (3-of-6 from the field) and Olivia Nelson-Ododa (0-of-7) scored nine points. There are plenty of big men like Brink, Prechtel and Fran Beliebe at Stanford, but Arizona’s posts aren’t intimidated by anything.
frequently asked questions
Who won the women’s Final Four in 2021?
The Arizona Wildcats advance to the NCAA Women’s National Championship after a resounding 69-59 victory over the UConn Huskies in the NCAA finals.
Who won the women’s basketball game at Stanford?
The showdown between the two highest-seeded teams in the Final Four of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament was supposed to be a high-scoring game, and it certainly was on Friday, when the Stanford Cardinals had just beaten South Carolina 66-65 to advance to the national title game.
Where are the final four for women?
It’s time: 6 p.m. Location: Alamodome, San Antonio. TV : ESPN.
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