The Stanford Cardinal won the NCAA championship on Sunday night. I’m trying this new thing where I don’t add the term “women” to that phrase automatically. Adding gender is a linguistic way that the inferiority of the womens’ teams is reinforced. The men get the college national championship, but we must specify the “women.” Men are comedians, and anyone else is specified, like a female comedian. Well, it’s stupid. So I am working on that myself.
Anyway, Stanford won a barn burner of a game against the Arizona Wildcats. I swear this won’t be an entire article based on etymology, but did you know that barnburner was originally a term for a group of radical New York politicians who were like the Joker and just wanted to watch the system burn? The first use in a sporting event, according to Miriam Webster, was for a game of bridge. You know, that real nail-biter of a card game played by uptight rich white people.
I am actually digging into these terms for a reason. The details matter. Events that may not feel monumental at the time can have a rippling effect nonetheless. The Cardinal team knows this more than anyone right about now. They know they are an excellent team and played some awesome basketball to win the title. They also know that if a couple of moments go differently, they are walking away as the runner-up. Or, more accurately, they could have lost in the Final Four.
On Friday, they were up one point over the South Carolina Gamecocks with 9.1 seconds left in the game. The ball is inbounded to Freshman Cameron Brink, who needs to just take the foul at that point. Instead, she starts to dribble, loses the ball, and South Carolina has a fast break to win the game.
Sophomore Brea Beal’s layup could have won the game. She faded away ever so slightly and it came up short. Still, Aliyah Boston grabbed the rebound and put it back up at the buzzer. The shot bounces off the back rim. Game over. Obviously, I can point to the layup and the put-back being…just…so close. However, the moment that really sent reverberations through to their title performance is the defense of Stanford on that play.
The turnover is bad. A blunder, if you will. Still, the team didn’t panic. Stanford forward Lexie Hull didn’t panic. She got in great defensive position and put her hands up on Beal’s attempt. Hull is six feet and just bothers the shot enough. And no one else fouls on Boston’s last-ditch attempt. It takes restraint to not swing to stop the shot at all costs.
The Cardinal’s ability to play their game at their pace no matter the situation paid massive dividends. In the finals, they let several double-digit leads slip away. You might say that Arizona also just took the game back. In the end, Stanford must have been feeling deja vu.
Up one point again with thirty-six seconds left, Stanford had the ball at the top of the key, let the clock wind down, and…turned the ball over with a shot clock violation. Thus, Arizona had the ball with six seconds remaining and one of the best offensive players in the nation, Aari McDonald, on their squad.
The little moments of “what-if” culminate right then. And there were several. McDonald had been fouled on two straight layup attempts. If one of those can roll in, it’s a different game. With 2:03 left in the game, the ball bounced off a Stanford player’s foot and rolled out of bounds. The referees called it off of Arizona and there is nothing the Wildcats could do to contest it. If the clock was under two minutes, there would have no doubt been a replay review. There are countless moments like this during the game. They build on this seesaw and there’s no way to know which way it will tip until it does.
In this case, Arizona inbound the ball. Stanford guarded McDonald–all 5’ 6” of her–with three players: Hull, 6’0”; Brink, 6’4”; and Anna Wilson, 5’9” and the co-PAC 12 Defensive Player of the Year. They had a fourth player standing nearby, too. You know, better to be safe and all that. They did not panic, reach or swipe at the ball, and get a foul. They played swarming, sound defense.
If McDonald could have passed to literally anyone else on the court, they could have had a wide-open shot attempt from almost anywhere they wanted on the court. Making the pass would not have been easy considering the length she was facing, but it’s not like the shot was any easier.
Aari McDonald still did get a turnaround shot up and towards the basket. It bounced off the back of the rim–very similar to the South Carolina shot–and Stanford took home the hardware.
The deafening thunder of “if I had only…” or “I should have…” rattling through my own head on events with far fewer stakes makes me wonder how these Arizona players will internalize this game going forward. I hope they are not too hard on themselves. They fought back every time it looked like Stanford was going to extend their lead. They played exceptional defense, deflected tons of passes, and kept attacking the rim. The Wildcats put themselves in the position to sink a shot and win the championship. On the other side, I wonder if the Stanford players will reflect on the inches that separated their wins from defeats. Living with those swirling questions can be painful. In thinking about this, it caused me to come up with a Cardinal Rule for myself.
My new Cardinal Rule is to not let the things that don’t go my way get me down. Take care of the details that I can control, whatever the life equivalent of keeping my hands up, not rushing, and focusing on my strengths might be. I cannot control which way the ball caroms off the rim. I can only do what I can to influence the release.
I found this Stanford team inspiring. Inspiring and tall. They played smart, skilled basketball and the inches added up in their favor. It also happened to be an awesome game. Congratulations on the championship and causing me to reflect on life itself.
Have a great day!