SAN ANTONIO — For the first time, two teams from the Pac-12 will fight for the national title in the N.C.A.A. women’s tournament final as top-seede
SAN ANTONIO — For the first time, two teams from the Pac-12 will fight for the national title in the N.C.A.A. women’s tournament final as top-seeded Stanford faces Arizona, a No. 3 seed.
Stanford Coach Tara VanDerveer likes the idea of the all-Pac-12 matchup.
“That would be awesome,” she said after Stanford squeezed past South Carolina in a tight semifinal battle for its spot in the title game. “We’re rooting for Arizona. It would be really exciting, it’s just I think a credit to how competitive the Pac-12 is.”
She is no longer rooting for Arizona, which stunned top-seeded UConn, 69-59, in the national semifinals on Friday night.
Only six prior N.C.A.A. women’s title games have featured teams within the same conference: Three were between Southeastern Conference teams, two were within the Big East and one was in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Stanford made it into the final by the skin of its teeth, defeating South Carolina, 66-65, then watched Arizona reach its first national-title game in program history.
“I’ve been saying all along: Pac-12 is the best conference in the country, hands down,” Arizona Coach Adia Barnes said after the Wildcats routed the Huskies. “I think this is proof of it. Stanford won the Pac-12, we were second, and we’re playing for a national championship.”
In the championship game, Stanford will seek its third title while Arizona will pursue its first. The final starts at 6 p.m. Eastern time, and will be televised on ESPN.
Here are a few things to follow:
It will be physical.
Both of these teams employ a lot of ball pressure and have the length to cover the floor.
Stanford and Arizona are the best in the Pac-12 at defending shots. Arizona held UConn, with its typically high-octane offense, to its lowest-scoring game of the season in the national semifinals. Stanford has been protecting the rim with a combination of Cameron Brink, Fran Belibi and Anna Wilson.
“Usually defensively one of our strengths is our guard defense,” VanDerveer said. “Anna Wilson has been a lockdown defender for us all year.”
And neither team is afraid to foul or be fouled.
“Trapping Aari is very difficult,” Barnes said of Arizona’s leading contributor on Friday, Aari McDonald. “I think she did a good job of drawing fouls. Aari got fouled nine times in the game.”
Aari McDonald. Everywhere.
The Pac-12 player of the year has owned the Alamodome’s floors, scoring at least 26 points in each of the past three games. She is lithe yet powerful, cutting through defenses and outrunning those who try to contain her.
While she is often most effective when penetrating defenses, she is also dangerous from the outside: McDonald has been shooting almost 42 percent from beyond the arc in the postseason.
And she is a formidable defender, often stealing the ball and converting turnovers into points. She has also had more than five defensive rebounds in each of the past four games.
“She’s really underrated on defense,” Barnes said after the national semifinal. “I thought in my mind she should have been the national defensive Player of the Year. There was no other player that impacts the game on both ends of the floor more.”
3-pointers remain the key for the Cardinal.
With solid defenders congesting the paint, it is a good thing neither team fears shooting from outside.
Though it has taken Arizona a bit longer to get comfortable shooting from deep, the Wildcats have landed 42 3-pointers in this tournament, shooting 34 percent. Stanford set a record in its win over South Carolina for made 3-pointers in the tournament with 56. UConn set the previous record of 54 in 2015. The Cardinal were 5 of 8 on 3-pointers on Friday night.
And Stanford has plenty of players who can shoot: Kiana Williams is one of the Cardinal’s most reliable shooters, landing a 3-pointer in every game she had played since early January until Friday night. Despite that lapse, leading scorers Haley Jones and Lexie Hull were perfect on 3-point shots.
“My teammates see me shoot at practice, I feel confident,” Jones said in a postgame interview on Friday. “They just kind of instill their confidence in me when I don’t have it in myself.”
Though Stanford has prevailed in two previous matchups with Arizona this season, Barnes is unafraid after coming this far.
“They’ve beat us twice this year: They have to beat us a third time,” she said.