Stanford Women Hold On; Ziaire Exits; An All-Star Move; Pac-12 Commish Search
It wasn't pretty. In fact, it was downright ugly at times.
But Stanford won the 2021 NCAA Women's Basketball Championship Sunday night in San Antonio, beating a very tough and athletic Arizona team, 54-53, in another game decided in the final second.
We won't dwell on the 21 turnovers, the fact that Stanford didn't get a shot off with a one point lead and six seconds left on the clock, or how hometown San Antonio hero Kiana Williams—so brilliant and confident in the early rounds—became a tentative turnover machine in the Final Four.
Instead, we'll remember the clutch performances of sophomore Haley Jones, the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player, the hustle and grit of Lexie Hull, the inside play of Cameron Brink and Ashten Prechtel, the great defense on Arizona's Pac-12 Player of the Year Aari McDonald by Anna Wilson, and the adversity Stanford's road warriors overcame in this aberrant and difficult year of COVID.
En route to the title, the Cardinal had to come back from a 12-point halftime deficit against Louisville, survive two missed close-in shots at the buzzer by South Carolina, and withstand another last-second attempt by Arizona's McDonald.
"We had some special karma going for us," said head coach Tara VanDerveer. "When we dodged the bullet—we had to come back against Louisville, dodged a bullet against South Carolina, dodged a bullet against Arizona. I think sometimes you've got to be lucky."
Yes, Stanford got lucky. Consider that payback for the years Stanford was unlucky. Jayne Appel's broken foot cost the Cardinal a championship win over Connecticut. Karlie Samuelson's sprained ankle spoiled another. A questionable charge on Candice Wiggins. The list goes on.
Huge congrats to VanDerveer for winning her third NCAA crown, this one coming 29 years after title No. 2. To win it all in 1992 and then again in 2021 is a tribute not only to the sustained excellence of Tara's program, but also her ability to recruit, develop, change and adapt over three decades.
Well done, "T-dawg." Well done.
No Surprise: As expected, Stanford freshman forward Ziaire Williams announced he’s leaving the Farm to enter the NBA draft. Williams was billed as one of the top recruits in the nation last year and an NBA lottery pick, but disappointed, averaging 10.7 points and 4.6 rebounds per game. He shot 37.4% from the floor, including a woeful 29.1% from 3-point range, and missed several games after attending a family funeral and then having to quarantine.
By comparison, the other Pac-12 freshman touted as a lottery pick, USC's Evan Mobley, was the conference Player of the Year, Freshman of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year.
One has to wonder if Williams, who by the end of the season couldn't crack the starting lineup on a team that failed to make the NCAA Tournament, and wasn't named to the Pac-12 All-Freshman team, is still considered a top pick in the NBA draft.
Unfortunately, this marks the second straight questionable "one and done" for Stanford, formerly a bastion of players who came to the school for an education as well as basketball, but now a place where top recruits come for a cup of coffee and leave after six months. Last year, guard Tyrell Terry departed after his freshman season. He was picked by Dallas with the first pick of the second round, but has spent most of the season in the D League.
It will be interesting to see where Williams is drafted and whether he's ready for the NBA. I think he'd benefit greatly from another year at Stanford to develop, mature, and gain consistency, not to mention further his education.
All-Star Move: We get pushback occasionally from a few subscribers who think we dabble too much in politics. We only do so when the real world intrudes into sports or when there is a mass shooting or presidential malfeasance that demands comment.
A few days ago, the two worlds intersected again when Major League Baseball decided to pull the 2021 All-Star Game out of Atlanta amid a national outcry over a new Georgia law that suppresses voting rights, especially for minorities. A law that includes one of the most outrageous statutes on the books in America, making it a crime to give water or food to someone waiting in line to vote.
“Major League Baseball fundamentally supports voting rights for all Americans and opposes restrictions to the ballot box,” Commissioner Rob Manfred said in a statement, taking a clean shot at Georgia's bigoted political machine and denying the state many millions of dollars in all-star game related revenue. “The best way to demonstrate our values as a sport is by relocating this year’s All-Star Game and MLB draft.”
Up until now, we haven't been a big fan of Manfred. He dilly-dallied way too long last year on making a deal with the players' union to hold an abbreviated season. His decision to start extra innings with a man on second base is, in our mind, sheer heresy.
But in this case, he stepped up to the plate, quickly, and did the right thing. He understands that the best weapon against bigotry and hatred is to hit people in the pocketbook.
New and Different Commissioner Wanted: In their search for a new Commissioner, the Pac-12 and search firm Turnkey Sports are looking for the antithesis of outgoing suit Larry Scott. Consider these nuggets from the job description posting:
The Conference is looking for a "lifelong learner" and "thought leader," not someone "who thinks they have all the answers.” The Executive Summary states the desire to hire a "servant leader" who is "strong yet humble."
If that isn't the anti-Scott, I don't know what is.
They also address the former commissioner's fondness for microphones. "The Pac-12 isn’t necessarily desirous of an ongoing 'spokesperson.' Everything has its time and place. The commissioner and communications team should discern when and how to deploy communications effectively for the collective."
I know the Turnkey people. They're very good. One of their principals is an old friend, Gene DeFilippo, the former AD at Boston College, a school we hosted three times at the Emerald/Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. I've been in touch with Gene about the Pac-12 search, and he gets it. I'm optimistic that an excellent hire will be made.
The three names I would’ve had at the top of my list—Big 12 Commissioner and former Stanford Athletic Director Bob Bowlsby, former Arizona and current Alabama AD Greg Byrne, and current Ohio State and former Arizona State AD Gene Smith—have apparently all indicated no interest in the job, which speaks to the attractiveness of their current positions and the challenge posed by the Pac-12 post.
Among the other candidates whose names that have been bandied about, here and elsewhere, are former West Virginia AD and NCAA Vice-President Oliver Luck (Andrew’s father), WCC Commissioner and former Oklahoma, Cal and Pac-12 administrator Gloria Nevarez, and current Nebraska and former Washington State AD Bill Moos.
All three, while not perfect, would all be a huge improvement over Scott. Luck is a class act, but has been entangled in a messy lawsuit with Vince McMahon over his involvement in the XFL. Nevarez is a great lady with tons of experience and people skills, but hasn't had much involvement in football. Moos, while certainly nowhere near Scott's level of self-promotion, is a little bit of a loose cannon and a bit of a media hound.
I think the conference would like to make a hire by next month. In this case, I'd say, 'this is a critical appointment for the future of the Pac-12. Take however long you need to get it right.'