SPOKANE, Wash. — The reigning national champion Stanford Cardinal secured a trip back to the Final Four on Sunday night, becoming the second No. 1 seed to reach this year’s national semifinals, with a 59-50 win over the No. 2 seed Texas Longhorns.
It’s the 14th Final Four appearance for the Cardinal under legendary coach Tara VanDerveer.
“It does not get old,” VanDerveer said postgame. “You’re always happy to go to the Final Four, but sometimes you’re really happy. I’m really happy. It is a great group to be with, they care about each other, they’ll do whatever. I wasn’t ‘t worried about the effort at all today.
“We have great leadership, unselfishness, 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 these teams met in November in Palo Alto, Texas spoiled Stanford’s ring-night celebration of last season’s title with a fourth-quarter comeback to win 61-56 on the Cardinal’s home court.
Stanford took an identical five-point lead to the final period Sunday. This time, the Cardinal made it stand up in large part thanks to the play of senior Lexie Hull, who scored a game-high 20 points in front of family and friends in her hometown.
The Longhorns had cut Stanford’s lead to two when Hull drove for a runner while being fouled and converted the ensuing free throw for a three-point play. On the following possession, Hull made two free throws to give the Cardinal a two-possession lead for good.
“It was a big play, no doubt about it,” Texas coach Vic Schaefer said.
Although Hull’s twin sister, Lacie, was scoreless, her play was also a key difference from the November matchup. Back then, Stanford was struggling to replace point guard Kiana Williams, who left for the WNBA after the championship. The Cardinal handed out a season-low seven assists and turned the ball over 20 times against Texas’ pressure.
Turnovers remained an issue for Stanford on Sunday, as the team gave the ball away 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 total.
The Hull twins were rewarded with an opportunity to finish cutting down the nets. Lexie Hull had one around her neck during the postgame news conference.
“I just remember after the game looking out and in pretty much every section of the gym, I knew somebody,” she said. “It was super special. Tara told us at the end of our game in Spokane that if we [won in] Spokane, Lacie and I would get the nets. So we were really excited to have that opportunity tonight and really felt the love and support from everyone.”
As has been the case all season, Stanford had key contributions from multiple players over the course of the game. In the third quarter, it was center Cameron Brink who stepped up to score all 10 of her points after spending much of the first half on the bench in foul trouble. Brink cited VanDerveer asking her at halftime whether 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 nervous zone coach. 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 points the rest of the quarter. Overall, Second Spectrum showed the Longhorns scoring 12 points on 19 possessions against zone. In a matchup of the two teams that entered the game with the nation’s longest winning streaks (23 for Stanford, now 24; 14 for the Longhorns before Sunday), those small margins proved critical.
Texas was also left to lament leaving points at the foul line, having shot just 11-of-20 on free throws.
“When you’re going to play in these games, y’all, you’ve got to make free throws, and we’ve done that until today,” Schaefer said.
Meanwhile, the Cardinal players and VanDerveer were dancing in celebration. As a way to keep players loose, VanDerveer proposed a group dance if the team advanced to the Final Four. After an individual session with Jones as VanDerveer’s lead teacher among a group that also included reserves Jordan Hamilton and Kiki Iriafen, the whole team went through practice after watching film Saturday.
“I think it just loosened people up and showed them that I had confidence in them,” VanDerveer said. “And they know I can’t dance so they’re watching me and laughing, so it was all good.”
With Stanford headed back to the Final Four to defend its title, there’s no disputing that.