SAN ANTONIO — Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer grinned as she left her post-championship news conference, saying, “I’ve got 600 text messages!”
The last time VanDerveer and the Cardinal won the NCAA women’s basketball title, it was eight months before the very first text message was ever sent. That 1992 championship was Stanford’s second in three years. No one could have imagined how long it would be before the Cardinal won a third.
And after a 29-year wait, Stanford still had to sweat through 6.1 pressure-packed seconds on Sunday to claim its trophy, holding off Arizona 54-53 when Wildcats star guard Aari McDonald missed a shot just before the buzzer. VanDerveer couldn’t exhale until that moment.
“That’s the way basketball is,” VanDerveer said. “If you’ve got a faint heart or weak stomach, then don’t coach.”
VanDerveer has been doing that at the Division I level since 1978, when she started her head-coaching career at Idaho. After a stint at Ohio State, she took over at Stanford in 1985-86 and won her first NCAA title in 1990. She has won or shared 24 Pac-12 regular-season titles and won 14 of that league’s 20 tournaments. But now, finally, the Cardinal are on top of the women’s basketball world again. The 29-year gap between NCAA titles is the longest for any Division I coach in any sport.
“This program is what it is because of Tara,” said Stanford sophomore Haley Jones, who had 17 points on Sunday and was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. “The legacy she’s created, just being able to be recruited by her, now be a part of the team, and then to take that a step further and win a national championship after the 29-year-long drought.
“I don’t think it’s still honestly even hit me yet. Even standing with the confetti, I’m just still waiting for it to kick in.”
The No. 1 overall seed in the tournament, Stanford leaves the Alamodome as champion, but Arizona leaves as an underdog team that captured the country’s imagination and almost the program’s first NCAA title.
Both teams struggled offensively, a credit to mutually strong defenses. The Wildcats shot just 28.8% from the field but still took the game to the buzzer in large part by forcing 21 Stanford turnovers.
McDonald, one of the individual stars of the tournament, said of her final shot, “I got denied hard. I tried to turn the corner, they sent three [defenders] at me. I took a tough, contested shot. Didn’t fall, so …”
“It doesn’t come down to the last possession; it comes down to all the little things,” said Arizona coach Adia Barnes, who was trying to lead her alma mater to a title in just her first NCAA tournament as head coach. “The margin of error is so slim in a championship game. This is uncharted territory for the Wildcats.”
But it’s oh-so-familiar territory for VanDerveer and the Cardinal. Between their last title and Sunday’s championship, the Cardinal had 10 other trips to the Final Four, all of which ended without the trophy.
That included semifinal losses in 1995, 1996 and 1997, although VanDerveer wasn’t with the 1996 team because she was coaching the U.S. national team in preparation for the 1996 Olympics, which the Americans won.
Stanford went to five consecutive Final Fours from 2008 to 2012, losing in the 2008 and 2010 championship games to Tennessee and UConn, respectively. Even with sisters Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike, both future No. 1 WNBA draft picks, the Cardinal couldn’t break through.
“I really feel like we won this for all of the great players that have played at Stanford,” VanDerveer said. “I know that these women are kind of on the shoulders of those women. Former players would be so proud to be part of this team because of the resilience they’ve shown, because of the sisterhood that they represent.”
This season alone has been quite a journey for VanDerveer and the Cardinal. The team was forced on the road for nearly 10 weeks because of COVID-19 regulations in California’s Santa Clara County, spending 86 days in hotels. It prepared the Cardinal for the past three weeks in the NCAA tournament bubble in San Antonio.
In December, VanDerveer earned her 1,099th career victory to pass the late Tennessee coach Pat Summitt for most in Division I women’s basketball history, and she now has 1,125, with 973 at Stanford. VanDerveer is tied with Baylor’s Kim Mulkey at three NCAA titles, behind 11 for UConn’s Geno Auriemma and eight for Summitt.
Auriemma’s Huskies defeated Stanford the last time the Cardinal reached the NCAA title game, in 2010, and he is second behind VanDerveer in career victories.
“It’s truly amazing when you think of what it takes to put yourself in position to win a championship in four decades,” Auriemma told ESPN on Sunday about VanDerveer. “Her consistency is remarkable, and I admire how well she has handled all that goes with it.”
No other Division I coach has gone more than 20 years between titles. In women’s basketball, the next-longest gap is 17 years (Muffet McGraw, 2001 and 2018 at Notre Dame). The longest gap for men’s basketball is also 17 years (Rick Pitino, 1996 at Kentucky and 2013 at Louisville, although that title was later vacated).
VanDerveer will turn 68 in June, and she admitted it was a taxing season with the pandemic. But she has another strong recruiting class coming in and said she really hasn’t thought about retirement.
“Maybe I’ll think about it later,” she said. “Right now, I am very excited about what we accomplished, about the team that we have in that locker room and the young people that are committed to Stanford. I’m happy. I’m enjoying it.
“Sometimes, you just have to stick with things. For me as a coach, again, you want to win a national championship. We have had shots at it. I’ve had heartbreak with teams that had great shots of winning it. But this team won, and I’m so proud of them.”