April 4, 2021 

Stanford needs to fire on all cylinders to take down red-hot Arizona

The Cardinal overcame a slow start against South Carolina Friday to advance to the National Championship

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SAN ANTONIO, TX – APRIL 2: Stanford Cardinal players celebrate their win over the South Carolina Gamecocks in the semifinals of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament at Alamodome on April 2, 2021, in San Antonio, Texas. (Photo by Justin Tafoya via Getty Images)

Records were made, calls were missed and hearts were broken in Friday’s Final Four match-up between Stanford and South Carolina that saw the Cardinal edge out the Gamecocks, 66-65.

The action went all the way to the final buzzer when South Carolina’s Aliyah Boston had a couple of chances to get the winning basket, but the ball didn’t fall for her.

Stanford will face Arizona today in its first title game since 2010, and the Wildcats are ready for them. These two teams have faced each other twice already this season, with Stanford coming out on top both times.

But let’s take a look at some key factors the Cardinal will have to remember if they want to take home the big trophy.

Let it flow

The number one biggest key for Stanford will be game flow. Arizona has been controlling their games and playing their style of basketball comfortably and successfully. They’re loose, they’re smiling, they’re hooping.

The Wildcats come out the gate ready to go because they have nothing to lose. No one expected them to be here. Stanford, on the other hand, is the top overall seed and is expected to be great.

That’s a lot of pressure on this stage. And even though they’ve pulled out the wins, that pressure has gotten to them at times. Even the first five minutes of their game against South Carolina were a little rough, but they ended up with a six-point lead by the end of the half.

“We can’t let the first five minutes dictate the whole game,” Lexie Hull said. “We just need to stay locked in.”

And staying locked in will be crucial against a relentless Arizona defense and a speedy Aari McDonald. Instead of playing tight and letting that pressure overpower their play, Stanford needs to let the game come to them and just flow with it.

But then, the same things I’m concerned about are the things Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer sees as strengths. And that’s why I’m a basketball writer, not a basketball coach.

“Obviously, we could look at the last possession, which was critical, but I really think the game was won in the first quarter when we were down at least nine and came back in that first quarter,” VanDerveer said after the game. “We battled back and I think our team has shown a lot of grit, a lot of heart … It is nice to have a little karma going your way.”

Depth at its best

This isn’t to say Stanford has been playing poorly. Their depth has still proven deadly throughout the tournament. It seems like every game they play, a new star steps up and stands out for the Cardinal right when they need them most.

Friday it was Haley Jones, who led her team with 24 points and came up with a big jumper with 32 seconds left to give Stanford their one-point lead.

“I just saw the ball bouncing around and most of my teammates were hitting some bodies to open it up,” Jones said after the game. “I just let it fly and I said, ‘Please, Jesus, go in,’ and it did. And then we just had to go on to the next play, there’s no time to get hyped about it, we had to get back on defense.”

SAN ANTONIO, TX – APRIL 2: Ashten Prechtel #11 of the Stanford Cardinal looks for an open pass as Aliyah Boston #4 of the South Carolina Gamecocks defends during the semifinals of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament at Alamodome on April 2, 2021, in San Antonio, Texas. (Photo by Justin Tafoya via Getty Images)

The Cardinal also drew a lot of energy from Lexie Hull once again, who dropped 18 points and was huge off the glass, with 13 rebounds. She was also at the center of a controversially missed kickball call that the NCAA refs can add to their highlight reel (that’s a story for another time).

“She’s a hustler, she’s scrappy, she gets on the floor, she’s not afraid to battle,” VanDerveer said of Hull after the game. “And it was very, very physical out there — right down to the last play. So you’ve got to be aggressive and you’ve got to be able to handle the ball.”

Prechtel was also big again on Friday, scoring 9 points of her own and hauling in almost as many rebounds (8).

Then there’s freshman Cameron Brink, who swatted away six shots and brought in four rebounds. She also put up six points of her own against the Gamecocks. Brink has been a steady defensive presence for the Cardinal all season, culminating in her setting the program’s single-season blocks record Friday (85).

As I’ve hammered on probably too many times, Stanford has weapons up and down the bench, and they’re going to need all of them against a fired-up Arizona team that is hungry for more.

VanDerveer has said her team’s middle name needs to be “Flexible,” and that’s going to ring especially true this afternoon.

“They’re so unselfish and they’re so team-oriented,” VanDerveer said of her team. “Obviously, Haley had a big game, but throughout the tournament — Ashten’s had a big game, Kiana’s had a big game. There’s Wilson [Anna] or Lexie or Lacey or Hannah Jump, you know, a lot of different people can contribute for us.”

Kiana kicks off

There are no two ways around it, Kiana Williams just hasn’t looked like herself the last few games. She’s so tight and you can tell the wheels are turning maybe a little more than they should.

This in comparison with Arizona’s Aari McDonald, who is playing loose and free, smiling and speeding up and down the court.

It’s much easier said than done, but the key for Kiana will be to loosen up and not think so much out on the floor. 

“I think she’s putting a lot of pressure on herself,” said VanDerveer after the game. “She’s in her hometown and I think being in the championship game will help her a lot. But this is how it’s going to be, they’re going to focus on her and she’ll respond. I know she’s got a great game in her.”

SAN ANTONIO, TX – APRIL 2: Kiana Williams #23 of the Stanford Cardinal tries to dribble to the basket against Destanni Henderson #3 of the South Carolina Gamecocks during the semifinals of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament at Alamodome on April 2, 2021, in San Antonio, Texas. (Photo by Justin Tafoya via Getty Images)

I want to see an epic match-up between Kiana and Aari in this final game of the tournament. They’re both seniors and both have a lot to play for right now. Williams is trying to win this thing in her hometown, McDonald is trying to put Arizona’s underestimated program at the top of women’s basketball.

It’s going to be great and I hate to be “that fan,” but I really do hope both teams have fun and ball out. It’s the National Championship, after all.

Written by Sydney Olmstead

Pac-12 and Las Vegas Aces reporter.

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