The national championship came down to greatness against greatness. What more can you ask for?
Arizona shouldn’t have been in a one-point game with a shot at the national title. In 2017, head coach Adia Barnes’s second year at Arizona, the Wildcats went 6-24. Just three seasons later, Barnes and Aari McDonald led Arizona to the first Elite Eight in program history … and then the first Final Four in program history … and then the first national championship game appearance in program history. After beating UConn in the Final Four, Barnes was caught on camera screaming “FUCK EVERYBODY” while throwing up a pair of middle fingers as part of a hype speech reminding her players that nobody had expected them to beat the UConn. (This isn’t much of an exaggeration—30 percent of ESPN brackets picked UConn to win the championship; just 1 percent picked Arizona.) The catalyst for the Wildcats’ run? McDonald, whom Barnes recruited to play at Washington when she was on the Huskies staff as an assistant coach (McDonald later followed Barnes to Arizona and sat out the 6-24 season). McDonald ended up scoring in double digits in all 93 games she played for the Wildcats. This year, she won Pac-12 player of the year and stepped her game up even further in the tournament, scoring 31 in the Sweet 16, 33 in the Elite Eight, and 26 in the Final Four. At 5-foot-6, it didn’t make sense that McDonald got her shots so easily, but she kept hanging 20 and 30 points on the best teams in the nation.
Quite frankly, Stanford shouldn’t have been in a one-point game with a shot at the national title either. Stanford had the fourth-highest margin of victory in college basketball this year, winning by an average of 24.0 points. Arizona might have seemed outmatched against UConn—but we knew they were outmatched against Stanford, which won its two regular-season matchups against the Wildcats by a combined 41 points. They won 21 of their 33 games by at least 20 points, including all three of their Pac-12 tournament wins en route to a conference championship. They won their Sweet 16 game by 17 and their Elite Eight game by 15. They had a better 3-point shooting percentage—38.4 percent, seventh best in the country—than their opponents’ overall field goal percentage—32.9 percent, second worst in the country.
And yet Stanford found itself in back-to-back barn burners. The Cardinal survived a pair of missed layup attempts by South Carolina at the buzzer in the Final Four—and in the title game, Arizona had the ball with a chance to win at the end of regulation. For the sixth time in six games, Arizona had taken everything its opponent wanted to do and destroyed it. Normally, that’s not a trait I like in teams, but Arizona made it lovable somehow. The Wildcats seemed to truly enjoy taking away all their opponents’ fancy weapons and making them win a fist fight.
With six seconds remaining and Arizona trailing by one point, Stanford knew McDonald was getting the ball—and the Cardinal had a perfect game plan. Senior guard Anna Wilson, regarded by many as the best on-ball defender in the game, drew the initial assignment on McDonald. Wilson stuck with McDonald’s flourishes—the fake left, the fake right, the fake left and then right again. She stopped McDonald’s forward progress and was assisted by Stanford’s help defenders, who all converged on McDonald, the only Arizona player who would possibly attempt the last shot. One of those defenders was 6-foot-4 freshman Cameron Brink, who averaged four blocks per game in the tournament—and roughly three extremely mean blocks per game.
And so, McDonald had to hoist a fadeaway jumper over two of the best defenders on one of the best defensive teams in the country. It was the FUCK EVERYBODY of shots. It had no business going in, the same way Arizona had no business being a shot away from the title. If McDonald was the only person alive who believed that shot was going to hit the bottom of the net, that was enough. I wanted it to go in, and I’m sure I wasn’t alone. She deserved that shot.
But Stanford deserved that miss. The Cardinal have been one of the elite programs in the sport for as long as Tara VanDerveer has been their head coach, and she’s been their head coach longer than I’ve been alive. But they haven’t won a championship since 1992, despite going to 13 Final Fours, including five straight Final Fours from 2008 to 2012.
The shot clanged away, and Stanford won the national championship by the slimmest margin possible: They won their two Final Four games by a combined two points, the first team ever to do so. (The Michigan men’s team in 1989 won their Final Four games by three combined points.) It’s fitting that Stanford’s clutchness came in the form of forcing missed shots, celebrating as its opponent’s last shots clanged away and the people who shot them crumbled to the floor in tears. This was a team of defensive artists, and the possession that won them the championship was their masterpiece.
The national championship came down to one shot, taken by an incredible scorer over incredible defenders. What more can you ask for? Except, I guess, the shot going in.