Haley Jones came up with a big shot, and Stanford got a little bit of luck to get back to the national championship game for the first time in 11 years.
Jones scored 24 points, including the go-ahead jumper with 32 seconds left, to help Stanford beat South Carolina 66-65 on Friday night and advance to the women’s NCAA Tournament championship game.
“It was a battle. It was a really tough game where we had to work really hard,” Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said.
It’s Stanford’s first trip to the title game since 2010, which was also in San Antonio. The Cardinal lost to UConn in that contest, 53-47. It could be a rematch, depending on the outcome of the second game of the Final Four, between Connecticut and Arizona.
“We’ll see who we’re playing, I think Connecticut is the favourite,” VanDerveer said. “We got to play really well no matter who we play. I don’t have any skeletons in the closet or ghosts. This is a team that has confidence in themselves.”
Leading by one, the Cardinal turned it over with 6.2 seconds left at midcourt and Brea Beal missed a contested layup as Lexie Hull hustled back to get in her way. Aliyah Boston grabbed the rebound, but her putback attempt also bounced off the rim setting off a wild celebration by the Cardinal.
“It is nice to have a little karma go your way,” VanDerveer said.
VanDerveer, who earlier this season topped Pat Summitt’s all-time win mark of 1,098 victories, will be looking for her third national championship at the school and first since 1992.
Trailing 65-64 with 32 seconds left, Jones hit a jumper from the corner off a rebound that gave the Cardinal their one-point lead.
“I just saw the ball bouncing around and most of my teammates were hitting some bodies to open it up. I just let it fly and I said, `Please, Jesus, go in,’ and it did,” said Jones, who was 11 for 14 from the field. “And then we just had to go on to the next play, there’s no time to get hyped about, we had to get back on defence.”
The Gamecocks had a couple chances after Jones’ shot. On the next possession, Boston had her shot blocked, but got her own rebound. Then, with 15 seconds left, Destanni Henderson threw a pass that was stolen by Ashten Prechtel.
After an inbounds, Cameron Brink lost the ball at midcourt to Boston, giving South Carolina those final two chances.
“We got a pretty decent, two looks at it, layup, follow up,” South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said. “We just came up short. We lost the way we did and it’s heartbreaking.”
Jones and Fran Belibi ran to Boston, who was still standing under the basket and both embraced her with a long hug after the buzzer sounded,
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“Me, Fran and Aliyah, we’re best friends. We text every day. We talk all the time. We love competing against each other. I think us being so close really boosted our competitiveness against each other,” Jones said. “So, I mean it was a hard-fought battle. She played great. We both played great. So, we just wanted to pay her the respect that she deserves.”
Down 64-59 with 1:42 left, Henderson scored six straight points to give the Gamecocks (26-5) a 65-64 lead with 38.8 seconds left. She had a three-point play and a 3-pointer.
Zia Cooke finished with 25 points to lead South Carolina.
Despite the frenetic finish, VanDerveer felt that the first quarter was huge for the Cardinal.
Trailing 15-6 midway through the first quarter, Stanford scored the last nine points of the period to tie the game heading into the second. The Gamecocks missed their final six shots of the quarter and were scoreless for the final 4:48.
“We know basketball teams have runs, so we can’t let that first quarter or the first five minutes dictate the whole game,” said Hull, who had 18 points and 13 rebounds.
The drought continued in the second quarter as the Gamecocks missed their first five shots and didn’t hit a field goal until Zia Cooke’s 3-pointer in the quarter made it 22-20. She had hit the previous basket nearly 9 1/2 minutes earlier.
The Cardinal had outscored the Gamecocks 16-2 since the early deficit.
Stanford led 31-25 at the half as Prechtel picked up where she left off from the win over Louisville in the Elite Eight. She had 16 points, all in the second half, to help the Cardinal rally to beat Louisville. She had seven in the opening 20 minutes against South Carolina.
Boston had a solid first half with seven points, nine rebounds and four blocks for the Gamecocks. She finished with 11 points, 16 rebounds and four blocks.