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NCAA Women's Final: Stanford Wins Championship With Victory Over Arizona

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The NCAA basketball championship goes to Stanford. They defeated Arizona 54-53 last night - a thrilling title game. Most of this tournament was held in San Antonio in a sort of COVID bubble, an event shadowed by inequities between this tournament and the separate men's event. Joey Palacios of Texas Public Radio reports.

(CHEERING)

JOEY PALACIOS, BYLINE: Stanford led almost the entire game. But as the clock ticked down, Arizona had a chance to win late. The Wildcats' star guard, Aari McDonald, lofted a shot, and as time expired, the ball rattled off the rim, giving Stanford its first championship since 1992. Haley Jones was named the tournament's most outstanding player. She led Stanford with 17 points.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HALEY JONES: It's just a blessing to really be here right now. I don't think it's still honestly even hit me yet, even standing up, looking at the confetti is just - I'm just still waiting for it to really kick in.

PALACIOS: Stanford's Tara VanDerveer coached both the 1992 and 2021 teams.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TARA VANDERVEER: I'm so proud of this team, not for just their basketball but for being able to get through this COVID and be so mature, you know, not have anyone test positive on our team through the whole winter. It's awesome.

PALACIOS: Players, coaches and staff were secluded and routinely tested for COVID-19. Attendance at the Alamodome was limited. Only 4,600 people were let in to watch. For the Arizona Wildcats, it was their first ever Final Four, and they got there as the underdog, beating perennial favorite University of Connecticut to advance to the championship. Arizona head coach Adia Barnes says this was uncharted territory.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ADIA BARNES: Our program hadn't been to the tournament in 15 years, 16 years. And we've never played in the championship game. So were we a little tight? Yeah. Were we not hitting shots? Yeah. But, I mean, we fought. We played great defense.

PALACIOS: For all of the excitement on the court, the tournament had a tough beginning.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SEDONA PRINCE: I got something to show y'all. So for the NCAA March Madness, the biggest tournament in college basketball for women, this is our weight room. Let me show y'all the men's weight room.

PALACIOS: That's Oregon player Sedona Prince on TikTok displaying just a single rack of dumbbells in the weight room for the women's teams and then comparing that to the lavish setup used by the men at their tournament in Indiana.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRINCE: If you aren't upset about this problem, then you're a part of it.

PALACIOS: South Carolina coach Dawn Staley also raised red flags claiming the NCAA didn't think women's players deserve the same amenities as men. The inequities caught national attention and quick reaction from the NCAA. The weight room issue was corrected with an entirely new set up and workout equipment. NCAA President Mark Emmert said they messed up.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARK EMMERT: When you lay the men's and women's championship side by side, as has been made clear over the past weeks, it is pretty self-evident that we dropped the ball in supporting our women's athletes.

PALACIOS: He said it's a failure that could not exist. And he's pledging to examine other women's sports at the collegiate level. Karen Mendoza drove eight hours from Amarillo to attend her first Final Four. She followed the controversy closely and hopes the NCAA keeps its word.

KAREN MENDOZA: I mean, we have to start somewhere, and hopefully, this rises attention to the issue. And I hope this - we progress. And hopefully, you know, women are treated the same as men when it comes to sports.

PALACIOS: After the game, the Stanford players celebrated and pulled on black T-shirts that simply said champs. For NPR News, I'm Joey Palacios in San Antonio.

(SOUNDBITE OF SARAH, THE ILLSTRUMENTALIST'S "BILTMORE HILLS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.