SPOKANE — The party started hours before Stanford’s players stepped foot in Spokane Arena. Outside of the team hotel Sunday, fans were lined up down the block, spilling into the street as they waited for the Cardinal to head to a pair of fire-red buses. The band played nonstop as cheerleaders shook their poms and the Stanford Tree spun and twirled in a dizzying display.
Jubilation was in the air, and it came with a feeling of ease. Last year’s NCAA tournament Most Outstanding Player, Haley Jones, was certainly unbothered as she mimicked singer Ciara’s side-to-side dance in the video for “1, 2 Step.”
The defending champs were clearly ready, and then they turned in a 59-50 victory over No. 2 seed Texas to advance to a second consecutive Final Four. Stanford has won 24 straight games, and this will be the 15th Final Four in school history.
Afterward, Jones wrapped her arms and legs around 6-foot-5 Ashten Prechtel as the two spun in a circle, standing in confetti. Before cutting the nets, the entire team, including Coach Tara VanDerveer, did the hustle dance at midcourt while the band played on in the background. Jones climbed off the ladder with her section of the net bounced for a couple feet and then twirled away, her trademark long, curly hair whipping around in a circle. On Friday, they’ll face Connecticut or North Carolina State, which clash for the Bridgeport Region title Monday night.
“Tara said it never gets old,” Jones said. “It means so much with this group of girls. I love each and every one of these girls. I love them more than basketball players, it’s more than that for us.”
This was not the type of game Stanford likes to play, but the Cardinal adapted in front of a largely pro-Stanford crowd that included Denver Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson in the second row behind the bench. (His sister, Anna, is a starting guard for the Cardinal.) Stanford prefers to light up the scoreboard with a precision offense, but Texas turned the game into a rugged, defensive showdown.
The Cardinal (32-3) got a huge boost from Cameron Brink in the second half after she sat most of the first in foul trouble. She finished with 10 points, six rebounds and six blocks, and she helped expand a three-point halftime lead. Lexie Hull of Spokane Valley’s Central Valley finished with a game-high 20 points and Jones added 18 points, 12 rebounds and four assists.
“I think it says that we’re a gritty team, we’re resilient, we’re competitive,” Jones said. “We could bang with their bigs today. I think that we showed a lot of physicality, a lot of competitiveness.
To see that we can have so many different options when somebody’s not hot yet. Cam’s out in the first half, comes in, starts hitting. Lexie’s hitting. I’m making my free throws. Lacie’s (Hull’s twin sister) hitting. All this stuff, it’s great.”
Still, Stanford led by just six heading into the final minute. Hull’s and-one runner gave Stanford a five-point lead after a 5-0 Texas run had cut Stanford’s edge to 50-48. After a Texas basket, Jones made four straight free throws to push the lead to 58-50 and put the game away.
Joanne Allen-Taylor led Texas (29-7) with 15 points before fouling out. Rori Harmon added 14 points, seven rebounds and six assists. The Longhorns fell one win short of the Final Four for the second straight year.
Stanford had a 30-27 lead at halftime after a defensive-minded opening 20 minutes. The Longhorns looked to set a physical tone: Forward DeYona Gaston picked up a foul just 11 seconds in. The Longhorns spent the next 20 minutes trying to bully Stanford out of its free-flowing offense — with a good amount of success.
A first-quarter full-court press forced three turnovers in four possessions. Stanford had an uncharacteristic 20 turnovers, but the Longhorns found that offense didn’t come easy for them, either.
Texas shot 37.0% in the first half and was outrebounded by nine. Stanford shot 39.3% and needed a 12-6 run to go into halftime ahead.
The all-region team, as announced after the game: Harmon, Allen-Taylor, Brink, Hull and Jones, the most outstanding player.