SPOKANE, Wash. — Defending national champion Stanford Cardinal secured a return to the Final Four on Sunday night, becoming the second No. 1 seed to reach this year’s national semifinals, with a 59-50 victory over the No. 2 seeded Texas Longhorns.
This is the Cardinal’s 14th Final Four appearance under legendary coach Tara VanDerveer.
“It doesn’t get old,” VanDerveer said after the game. “You’re always happy to go to the Final Four, but sometimes you’re really happy. I’m really happy. They’re a great group that they care about each other, they’ll do anything I wasn’t. not at all worried about the effort today.
“We have great leadership, selflessness, and I think whoever we play — whether it’s Connecticut or NC State — we’ll be ready.”
First, Stanford had to survive a rematch against the Longhorns. When those teams met in November in Palo Alto, Texas spoiled Stanford’s title celebration of last season with a fourth-quarter comeback for win 61-56 on the ground of the Cardinal.
Stanford took an identical five-point lead going into the final period on Sunday. This time, the Cardinal held it on largely thanks to play by senior Lexie Hull, who scored a game-high 20 points in front of her family and friends. friends in his hometown.
The Longhorns had cut Stanford’s lead to two when Hull drove for a runner while fouled and converted the ensuing free throw into a three-point play. On the next possession, Hull made two free throws to give the Cardinal a two possession lead for good.
“It was a big game, no doubt about it,” Texas coach Vic Schaefer said.
Although Hull’s twin sister Lacie failed to score a goal, her play was also a key difference from the November game. At the time, Stanford was struggling to replace point guard Kiana Williams, who left for the WNBA after the championship. – Low seven assists and returned the ball more than 20 times against pressure from Texas.
Turnovers remained an issue for Stanford on Sunday, as the team gave away the ball 20 times, including 11 in the second half. But Lacie Hull and Haley Jones – who also had a double-double with 18 points and 12 rebounds – had four assists apiece as the Cardinal doubled their November tally.
The Hull twins were rewarded with the opportunity to finish cutting the nets. Lexie Hull had one around her neck at the post-match press conference.
“I just remember after the game, looking outside and in just about every section of the gym, I knew someone, she said. It was super special. Tara told us at the end of our game in Spokane only if we [won in] Spokane, Lacie and I would get the Nets. So we were really thrilled to have this opportunity tonight and really felt the love and support from everyone.
As has been the case all season, Stanford had key contributions from several players over the course of the game. In the third quarter, it was center Cameron Brink who scored his 10 points after spending much of the first halftime on Brink cited VanDerveer asking her at halftime if she wanted to start the third quarter as motivation.
After falling behind by eight early in the third, the Longhorns rallied to tie the game midway through the period. VanDerveer responded by going to a zone, something the Cardinal hadn’t done in the first three games of the NCAA tournament, according to Second Spectrum camera tracking.
“I think just a little change of pace,” VanDerveer said. “I’m a nerve zone trainer. I hate giving up 3s.”
The change paid off. Brink had three blocks and a steal on the next five possessions as Texas scored just three runs the rest of the quarter. Overall, Second Spectrum showed the Longhorns scoring 12 points on 19 possessions against the zone. two teams that entered the game with the longest winning streaks in the nation (23 for Stanford, now 24; 14 for the Longhorns heading into Sunday), those small margins proved essential.
Texas also had to lament leaving runs on the foul line, shooting just 11 of 20 on free throws.
“When you’re going to play in these games, you all have to make free throws, and we did that until today,” Schaefer said.
Meanwhile, players Cardinal and VanDerveer were dancing in celebration. In order to keep the players free, VanDerveer proposed a group dance if the team qualified for the Final Four. After a one-on-one session with Jones as VanDerveer’s homeroom teacher among a group that also included reserves Jordan Hamilton and Kiki Iriafen, the entire team practiced after watching the film on Saturday.
“I think it just relaxed people and showed them that I had confidence in them,” VanDerveer said. “And they know I can’t dance, so they look at me and laugh, so it was okay.”
With Stanford returning to the Final Four to defend their title, there’s no question.