The NCAA women’s national championship is set, and No. 1 Stanford will take on No. 3 Arizona on Sunday at 6 p.m. ET. Stanford knocked off No. 1 South Carolina in a game that came down to the final buzzer, while Arizona seemed to handle No. 1 UConn with ease. From the first play, Arizona had the upper hand, and UConn could never recover.
To this point, it’s been a long season full of ups and downs as teams have worked to navigate playing during a pandemic. From extra testing to additional safety precautions when traveling, and finally holding the tournament in a bubble, teams have had to work through various forms of adversity. Still, only two have made it to the final game.
Let’s take a deep dive into Stanford and Arizona’s seasons to see how they made it to the national championship game.
Stanford’s regular season
Stanford’s regular season was anything but typical. In a year of navigating playing during a pandemic, no one expected it to be a smooth ride, but I doubt anyone expected it to be this rocky either. The first day of practice was Oct. 16 for the Cardinal, and on Nov. 25, their first game of the season took place against Cal Poly in Maples Pavilion. The Cardinal won 108-40. Excited and ready to begin prepping for the next game, things changed suddenly.
Santa Clara County released new health and safety orders that would prohibit all contact sports through at least Dec. 21. With the new guidelines in place, the Cardinals hit the road, and little did they know they would be away from home for 63 days. From gym to gym, hotel to hotel, the Cardinal practiced in high school facilities and attended virtual classes in tight windows before practice. It was not an ideal situation, and yet they continued to win.
After a game against Arizona State on Jan. 3, the Stanford staff were informed that Arizona State players tested positive. Unfortunately, three members of their team were deemed high risk due to close contact. They were separated to quarantine while the rest of the team moved on to face a talented Oregon Ducks squad. Stanford won, but just three games later, they suffered their first loss to Colorado and then their second to UCLA in back-to-back games.
It was Jan. 22, and they had been on the road for nearly two months at this point. Yet they rallied and bouncing back from those two losses. Eventually they were able to play again at Maples Pavilion for the first time since Nov. 25 on Feb. 5. They played Colorado, who they beat 62-54.
Heading into the postseason, the Cardinals could not lose. In the Pac-12 conference tournament, they dominated, beating opponents by an average of 32.6 points. In the NCAA tournament, they continued to beat their opponents by double figures averaging a 24 point margin of victory until they met South Carolina in the Final Four. There, they squeezed past the Gamecocks with a nail-biting one-point win.
After an entire season of pushing through adversity, staying flexible, and finding ways to carry on, the Cardinal have made it to the last stop, the championship game. Here they hope to bring home their first championship in 29 years and put a cap on a season that no one could have predicted.
Arizona’s regular season
At the start of the season, head coach Adia Barnes began her fifth year with the Wildcats, picked No. 2 in the Pac-12 preseason rankings only behind Stanford.
Unlike Stanford, the Wildcats did not have to live on the road for an extended period of time, but they did endured the growing pains that came with navigating this pandemic year and season.
In January, the team was forced into a confusing and frightening quarantine period. One member of the Wildcat’s party tested positive on Jan. 23, and that halted everything. Though it was not a player, contact tracing found the coaching staff to be high risk.
On Jan. 24, the team was set to play Colorado, but the game was postponed and so were the following three. In part, the game cancelations were due to varying health and safety guidelines in each state. While Arizona required a seven-day quarantine, California required 10.
During the time the coaches had to spend quarantining from their team, the ladies were still allowed to lift and practice, but it was all without the coaching staff’s guidance. As stressful as the situation was, Barnes said it was helpful in other ways:
“...I do think it was a time for our players to get some rest, mentally and physically.”
Moving forward, Arizona was able to end the season with a 15-4 record, landing themselves a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Arizona’s NCAA tournament run
Throughout the tournament, Arizona has not handled their competition with ease, but instead, they have stunned much of the basketball world making runs, and closing games as they worked their way to the national championship game.
Arizona pushed past No. 14 Stoney Brook in the first round and squeezed past No. 11 BYU winning by just six points. Then there came the challenge of beating a higher seed. Arizona met No. 2 Texas A&M in the Sweet 16 after the Aggies had come off of a buzzer-beating win against Iowa State. They knocked off the Aggies in an exciting 74-59 point victory and moved on to their next test, Indiana.
No. 4 Indiana, like Arizona, was making school history. It was their first time in the Elite Eight as well. But with the help of Aari McDonald’s 33-point performance, Arizona was able to punch their ticket to their first Final Four.
It was in the Final Four that the Wildcats met UConn. They were going up against a young but talented Husky squad, and Adia Barnes’ team did not back down. From the jump, Arizona controlled the game. They not only handed UConn a loss, but they gave them their biggest deficit of the season in the process.
All of this had led to the final game, the national championship. The overall No. 1 Stanford will take on No. 3 Arizona for the third time this season. The Cardinals are 2-0 against Arizona, beating them by 27 and 14 in those respective games.
While those stats may seem like Stanford could walk away with this one, one thing I’ve learned while watching Arizona play through this tournament is to never count them out. A team on the cusp of history is alway dangerous. It should be a good matchup, one for the history books, and you won’t want to miss it.