As much of a disparity it was against perennial power UConn for Arizona in terms of Final Four appearances, the same perceived mismatch applies against Pac-12 nemesis Stanford in a few ways:
— The Cardinal have won 35 of their last 37 games against Arizona and hold a 71-14 series edge. Can you believe that since Arizona beat Tara VanDerveer in the first three meetings against the Hall of Fame coach in 1985-86, the Cardinal has gone 66-8 against the Wildcats?
— Stanford (30-2) is the No. 1 team in the NCAA’s NET rankings with 14 wins against top 50 teams, including two over No. 15 Arizona by a combined 42 points.
— VanDerveer’s team also ranks in the top 25 nationally in nine major statistical categories, most notably field goal percentage defense (second at 33.0 percent), 3-point field goal percentage (sixth at 38.6) and scoring defense (eighth at 53.8 points allowed per game).
Stanford, a women’s college basketball blueblood like UConn, enters today’s national championship game against Adia Barnes’ upstart Arizona program as a nine-point favorite.
All of this is just the way Aari “The Dog” McDonald wants it with her teammates who have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with her and have not been carried on her back in this magical run to the title game.
“Hey, I got my chances with my teammates. Ride or die, I’m going to war with them,” McDonald said earlier in March Madness in what is the rallying cry in the program’s first NCAA Tournament in 16 years.
The Wildcats (21-5) will try to topple its second consecutive No. 1 seed for the NCAA title today at 3 p.m. (ESPN, KTUC 1400-AM broadcasting live) much like Lute Olson’s team did in 1996-97 when it beat top seeds North Carolina and Kentucky in the Final Four for the championship.
Mike Bibby, Miles Simon, Michael Dickerson, Jason Terry and Co. also upset No. 1 seed Kansas in the Sweet 16 when absolutely nobody gave them a chance.
Arizona’s monumental upset of 13.5-point favorite UConn was the equivalent of Olson’s team defeating Kansas.
Standing in the way now is Stanford’s length and talent with formidable starters Lexie Hull, Kiana Williams, Haley Jones and Cameron Brink able to be part of WNBA rosters now if given the opportunity. Senior guard Anna Wilson is the Cardinal’s experienced quarterback as a point guard, which is fitting because Russell Wilson is her brother.
The Wildcats will “go to war,” as Barnes calls it, with a coach like none other in the nation when it comes to facing what seems to be an impossible task.
Barnes has proven herself repeatedly since she went unnoticed at San Diego’s Mission Bay High School as senior in 1993-94. Only Arizona’s legendary coach Joan Bonvicini and her assistant Clemette Haskins could see that Barnes was not too small to play the post at 5-foot-11 and she possessed skills away from the basket.
Nobody else gave her chance.
Her friends and coaching contemporaries questioned her decision to coach at Arizona when her team went 6-24 in her second season in 2017-18 in what was the Wildcats’ 12th losing season out of the previous 13 years.
“I feel like your team feeds off of you. I think we’re confident,” Barnes said. “The team I see is a reflection of me. I was scrappy. I wasn’t afraid. I was tough, physical. I was always undersized and always had a chip on my shoulder. I hope they get that from me, because I take pride in that.”
The worst thing that could have happened to UConn was the NCAA carelessly omitting Arizona from a Final Four promotional video and showing only the other three teams that remained in San Antonio.
“The video and stuff . . . it kind of was like a dagger because I thought being in the Final Four we proved ourselves being the number three seed,” Sam Thomas said. “Now we’re just in it for ourselves. We’re doing this for ourselves. If people want to support us, we love it. We love the support.
“If people want to hate us, we’re in the national championship, so what more can you say?”
The chip on that shoulder remains because many are not giving Arizona a chance against Stanford.
Sunday’s NCAA title game between Stanford and Arizona has an interesting dynamic of the understudy challenging her mentor for the same prize: https://t.co/qxOC8Vt9fN
— Javier Morales (@JavierJMorales) April 3, 2021
The Cardinal has some moxie as well after spending nine weeks on the road this season after Santa Clara (Calif.) County prohibited all contact sports in late November due to COVID-19 protocols.
The team practiced at various high school gyms on extended road trips.
“We’ve grown so much closer because we’ve just been in hotels together for weeks on end,” Brink, a freshman, said. “It’s kind of an advantage for us. When (other teams) came to the bubble in San Antonio they didn’t really know what to expect, and we kind of knew.
“(Practicing at numerous high schools) really made us grittier. We just kind of laughed about it. There were a couple times where the power wasn’t working, so we were practicing in the dark. It was freezing in there. But we were just thankful to have a gym to practice in. It made us tougher.”
Notes: On Former UA coach Judy LeWinter and player Greta Naranjo taking pride in the Wildcats’ success after being part of the early teams in the program’s history and Aari McDonald commenting on her comparison with Damon Stoudamire (@Iambiggie503) https://t.co/Ff2KpPu8Nm
— Javier Morales (@JavierJMorales) April 3, 2021
It is a game with many subplots, most noteworthy among them two Pac-12 teams challenging for a national title for the first time and VanDerveer mentoring Barnes while Barnes has grown in the coaching profession over the last five years.
The Pac-12 carries a chip on its shoulder as well.
It’s unfathomable to think the Final Four has been held only once in a Pac-12 locale since 1999. Denver hosted it in 2012. Phoenix is scheduled to be the host in 2026.
Pac-12 schools lead the country in NCAA Tournament victories (69) and winning percentage (.711) over the last six years.
“This is honestly a dream come true,” VanDerveer said of the Pac-12 taking the national spotlight in the title game. “For so long the conference hasn’t gotten the respect it deserves.”
My brother @AndyMorales8 and I have been gathering comments from former @ArizonaWBB players who have expressed their pride in fellow alum @AdiaBarnes for coaching the Wildcats into tomorrow’s national championship game: https://t.co/pAR9GoMLR0
— Javier Morales (@JavierJMorales) April 4, 2021
Barnes told the national reporters during Saturday’s Zoom press conference: “I think that you need to respect the Pac-12 a lot more.”
“It’s very evident that a lot of writers don’t even watch the Pac-12 because half of them, the writing isn’t accurate or they’re not familiar with people,” Barnes said. “So start watching the West Coast, start paying attention to the Pac-12. It is the best conference in the country and I think it needs to be respected more.
“I’m hoping that with both of us in the championship game, that the Pac-12 will get more respect and the East Coast bias will stop.”
21-5 overall, 13-4 Pac-12
NET ranking: No. 15
Big Wins: Dec. 4 No. 8 UCLA (68-65), Jan. 14 No. 10 Oregon (57-41), Jan. 17 No. 36 Oregon State (67-51), Feb. 8 at No. 10 Oregon (79-59), Feb. 12 No. 45 Washington State (60-51), March 24 No. 50 BYU (52-46), March 27 No. 11 Texas A&M (74-59), March 29 No. 9 Indiana (66-53), April 2 No. 2 UConn (69-59).
Bad Loss: Feb. 28 at No. 95 Arizona State (66-64 OT)
Coach: Adia Barnes (89-65, fifth season)
- G Aari McDonald, Sr., 20.5 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 4.1 apg, 2.7 spg
- G Bendu Yeaney, Jr., 4.0 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 1.5 apg, 1.0 spg
- F Sam Thomas, Sr., 7.5 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 1.5 apg, 2.3 spg, 1.2 bpg
- F Trinity Baptiste, Sr., 8.6 ppg, 6.2 rpg
- F Cate Reese, Jr., 11.2 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 1.0 spg
Key Role Players:
- G Helena Pueyo, Soph., 3.7 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 1.5 spg
- F Lauren Ware, Fr., 4.0 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 1.1 bpg
- G Shaina Pellington, Jr., 5.4 ppg, 1.7 rpg
- G Madi Conner, Fr., 1.0 ppg
By the Numbers:
- Scoring Offense: 66.8 (129th in nation)
- Scoring Defense: 55.3 (14)
- Field-Goal Percentage: 41.3 (115)
- Field-Goal Percentage Defense: 36.7 (35)
- Three-Point Field Goals Per Game: 6.3 (134)
- Three-Point Field-Goal Percentage: 33.9 (71)
- Free-Throw Percentage: 68.9 (187)
- Rebound Margin: -0.1 (161)
- Assists Per Game: 11.7 (234)
- Turnovers Per Game: 12.3 (18)
NCAA tournament appearance: Eighth
Furthest NCAA tournament run: National championship game in 2020-21
30-2 overall, 19-2 Pac-12
NET ranking: No. 1
Big Wins: Dec. 21 at No. 8 UCLA (61-49), Jan. 1 at No. 15 Arizona (81-54), Jan. 8 No. 10 Oregon (70-63), Jan. 27 at No. 45 Washington State (71-49), Jan. 29 at No. 45 Washington State (77-49), Feb. 13 at No. 36 Oregon State (83-58), Feb. 15 at No. 10 Oregon (63-61), Feb. 22 No. 15 Arizona (62-48), March 5 No. 36 Oregon State (79-45), March 7 No. 8 UCLA (75-55), March 23 No. 27 Oklahoma State (73-62), March 28 No. 20 Missouri State (89-62), March 30 No. 6 Louisville 78-63, April 2 No. 4 South Carolina 66-65.
Bad Loss: Jan. 17 at No. 52 Colorado (77-72, OT)
Coach: Tara Vanderveer (972–204, 35th season at Stanford; 1,124–255, 42nd season overall).
- G Anna Wilson, Sr., 4.6 ppg, 2.0 apg
- G Lexie Hull, Jr., 11.6 ppg, 1.7 apg, 4.9 rpg
- G Kiana Williams, Sr., 14.3 ppg, 3.1 apg
- G Haley Jones, Soph., 13.1 ppg, 2.9 apg
- F Cameron Brink, Fr., 9.9 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 2.7 bpg
Key Role Players:
- F Francesca Belibi, Soph., 7.6 ppg, 5.1 rpg
- F Ashten Prechtel, Soph. 5.7 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 1.1 bpg
- G Hannah Jump, Soph., 6.9 ppg
By the Numbers:
- Scoring Offense: 78.5 (13th in nation)
- Scoring Defense: 53.8 (8)
- Field-Goal Percentage: 46.7 (14)
- Field-Goal Percentage Defense: 33.0 (2)
- Three-Point Field Goals Per Game: 8.9 (15)
- Three-Point Field-Goal Percentage: 38.6 (6)
- Free-Throw Percentage: 71.1 (141)
- Rebound Margin: 9.9 (13)
- Assists Per Game: 16.5 (19)
- Turnovers Per Game: 12.6 (23)
NCAA Tournament appearance: 26th
Furthest NCAA Tournament run: NCAA championship two times, most recently in 1991-92
History against Arizona: Stanford leads the series 71-14, including wins in 35 out of the last 37 matchups. The longest winning streak for he Cardinal against Arizona was 25 games from March 8, 2004, to Jan. 16, 2015. Arizona’s last win over Stanford was 72-71 in overtime at McKale Center on Feb. 28, 2020. McDonald scored on a driving layup with 8.5 seconds left and had 20 points, helping No. 13 Arizona beat a top-five team for the first time with the win over No. 4 Stanford.
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.