SAN ANTONIO — Tara VanDerveer hugged each of her Stanford players as they climbed the ladder to cut down the nets, capping a taxing whirlwind journey and ending an exhausting championship drought for the Cardinal.

After 29 years overall and including having to be on the road for 10 weeks this season because of the coronavirus, VanDerveer and the Cardinal are NCAA women’s basketball champions again.

Haley Jones scored 17 points and Stanford beat Arizona 54-53, giving the Cardinal and their Hall of Fame coach their first national championship in 29 years on Sunday. 

Discovery Canyon graduate Ashten Prechtel was Stanford’s top sub. The sophomore had seven points, eight rebounds, three assists and a block in 21 minutes.

NCAA Final Four Arizona Stanford Basketball

Stanford players, with Ashten Prechtel center back, celebrate at the end of the final Sunday, April 4, 2021, vs. Arizona at the Alamodome in San Antonio.

“Getting through all the things we got through, we’re excited to win the COVID championship,” VanDerveer said. “We’re really excited. No one knows the score, no one knows who scored, it’s a national championship.”

It wasn’t a masterpiece by any stretch with both teams struggling to score and missing easy layups and shots, but Stanford did enough to pull off the win — its second straight by a point.

Stanford (31-2) built a nine-point lead in the fourth quarter before Arizona (21-6) cut it to 51-50 on star guard Aari McDonald’s 3-pointer.

After a timeout, Jones answered with a three-point play with 2:24 left. That would be Stanford’s last basket. McDonald got the Wildcats with 54-53 with 36.6 seconds left converting three of four free throws.

“I just owe it all to my teammates, they have confidence in me when I don’t have confidence in myself,” said Jones, who was honored as the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. “I saw they needed me to come up big and I did.”

The Cardinal, after another timeout, couldn’t even get a shot off, giving Arizona a chance with 6.1 seconds left, but McDonald’s contested buzzer shot from the top of the key bounced off the rim.

“I got denied hard. I tried to turn the corner, they sent three at me. I took a tough, contested shot and it didn’t fall,” said McDonald, who fell near midcourt, slumped in disbelief while the Cardinal celebrated.

It’s been quite a journey for VanDerveer and the Cardinal this season. The team was forced on the road for nearly 10 weeks because of the coronavirus, spending 86 days in hotels .

The Hall of Fame coach earned her 1,099th career victory to pass Pat Summitt for the most all time in women’s basketball history.