SPOKANE, Wash. — The reigning champions are back in the Final Four. No. 1-seeded Stanford beat No. 2 Texas, 59-50, on Sunday to reach its 15th NCAA tournament national semifinals.
The Cardinal were cheered on by a Spokane Arena crowd decidedly in their court thanks to fans of the Hull twins, Lexie and Lacie, who grew up in Spokane. Lexie Hull was the game’s leading scorer with 20 points on 7 of 14 shooting.
The game was chippy, physical and fast from the tip-off, with each side blocking shots and making tough looks. It was exactly the pace and style the Longhorns sought, though Stanford still found ways to score. Lexie Hull particularly seemed to feed off the crowd’s enthusiasm for her and her sister, scoring 5 points in the game’s first six minutes and finishing the first half with 12.
“You’re always happy to go to the Final Four, but sometimes you’re really happy,” Stanford Coach Tara VanDerveer said. “I’m really happy. It is a great group to be with, they care about each other, they’ll do whatever. Whoever we play — whether it’s Connecticut or NC State, we’ll be ready.”
Free throws were traded starting early in the game, as were tough defensive plays. At one point, Lacie Hull blocked a shot for a steal on one end, and then Texas’s Aliyah Matharu took a charge in transition on the other. The first quarter ended 14-14 after Haley Jones hit a tough buzzer beater, but Texas had held Stanford scoreless for five minutes before that.
The Cardinal made just 39.3 percent of their shots from the floor in the first half, but went into the locker room with a 3-point lead—in part thanks to poor free-throw shooting from the Longhorns. Any time Texas would lose patience and start playing too aggressively, Stanford would make it pay either by making its free throws or by finding an open player along the baseline.
“We knew tonight was going to be super physical, and it definitely was,” Lexie Hull said. “It came down to who was grittier.”
It looked like Stanford might have found some separation early in the third, when Lauren Ebo, the Longhorns’ leading rebounder, picked up her second and third fouls in the first two minutes of the quarter, and Stanford forward Cameron Brink scored 5 straight points in that same period.
But Texas kept getting stops, even when it could not consistently convert them into points, and tied the game again. The senior guard Audrey Warren contributed crucial 3-point shots to keep the Longhorns within striking distance, and played impressive defense on Haley Jones.
“That defense is very taxing,” Jones said. “I’m excited to get back and shower and get to bed.”
Jones was able to bring Stanford’s lead back up to 5 points by the end of the third quarter, when she was fouled shooting a 3-point shot and made all her free throws. A 5-point lead is exactly what the Cardinal had brought into the fourth quarter of their first matchup against the Longhorns this season — a defeat to Texas on their home court in November for one of only three losses this season.
The push and pull continued in the fourth, but the Longhorns were never able to get back ahead and replicate their early-season upset. Texas came within 2 points in the final minutes, but continued to be haunted by missed free throws. The Longhorns finished 11 of 20 from the free-throw line.
Stanford won its 24th consecutive game, the longest active streak in Division I. Cameron Brink excelled in the second half, shutting down Texas’ interior offense with six blocks.
“They did enough things to beat us, and that’s what great teams do,” Texas Coach Vic Schaefer said. “We had a bad fourth quarter scoring the basketball, and other than that we left it all on the floor.”
Jones finished with a double-double thanks to her consistency at the line, where she shot 10 of 11. Jones had 18 points and 12 rebounds and was named the most outstanding player in the Spokane regional.
Ultimately, Stanford took control of the low-scoring game, and successfully avenged its loss. Texas was eliminated in the round of 8 for the second straight year.
“We’re listening to his postgame talk, and we’re like, ‘But this is only the first year,’” freshman Rori Harmon said, alluding to Texas’ other young players. “I’m upset about this one, but I’m ready for more.”