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Stanford rolls to Pac-12 women’s basketball tournament title

No, the Stanford women’s basketball team doesn’t get tired of celebrating. Yes, the Cardinal players like it when their legendary coach, Tara VanDerveer, participates.

So much so that sophomore forward Cameron Brink removed the Pac-12 championship hat from her head after Sunday’s title game at Michelob Ultra Arena and placed it atop VanDerveer’s during a news conference. Backward, with a strand of netting tied to its closure.

“We joke about it. Her best look is the ‘Backwards hat Tara,”’ senior guard Lexie Hull said. “The only way you get a backwards hat is if you win.”

No. 2-ranked Stanford ensured that VanDerveer looked her best with a 73-48 beatdown of seventh-seeded Utah before an enthused crowd of 4,709 that included Aces and Raiders owner Mark Davis and Aces All-Star forward Dearica Hamby. The Cardinal (28-3) punctuated a perfect conference record by capturing the tournament title for the second straight year and 15th time since 2003, when the event began.

No. 1 South Carolina was upset by Kentucky in the Southeastern Conference championship game Sunday, perhaps paving the way for Stanford, the defending national champion, to get the NCAA Tournament’s No. 1 overall seed.

“I leave the seeding and all that bracketology to other people and really just focus on our team,” VanDerveer said. “It doesn’t matter. It’s playing well and staying healthy and playing with each other.”

The way they did Sunday in the second half against the Utes (20-11).

The Cardinal struggled by their standards in the first half against Utah, yielding open 3-pointers amid untimely defensive rotations. The result was a 32-30 halftime lead, one far too small for VanDerveer’s liking.

But her players were in sync in the second half, offensively and defensively. Brink blocked four shots, junior forward Haley Jones added two blocks and Stanford’s guards pressured Utah’s ballhandlers, disallowing openings for dribble penetration.

A 21-5 edge in the fourth quarter triggered the celebration that Brink, Hull, Jones and VanDerveer could enjoy — and prompted Utah coach Lynne Roberts to call this Stanford team better than the 2020-21 squad.

Jones, the Pac-12 Player of the Year, is a stout two-way wing with explosive offensive potential. Brink scores at and protects the basket as the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year. Hull and her twin sister, Lacie, add shooting and experience. And sixth-year senior guard Anna Wilson was last season’s co-Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year.

“If Brink and Jones are both going, they’ll cut down the nets (at the Final Four) in Minneapolis again,” Roberts said. “I do think they’re the best team in the country.”

Jones scored 19 points, Brink 16 and Lexie Hull 15. Junior guard Brynna Maxwell scored 16 to pace Utah.

“Regular-season Pac-12 and tournament. We’ve got both of those,” Jones said. “It’s kind of fueling the fire to keep that competitive energy going into the (NCAA) tournament. We won last year. We have a target on our backs, which we embrace as motivation to try to bring another one home.”

Jones was the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. She was joined on the all-tournament team by Brink and Wilson, Utah’s Jenna Johnson and Gianna Kneepkens, and Oregon’s Nyara Sabally.

Contact Sam Gordon at sgordon@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BySamGordon on Twitter.

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