Bear Down, Aari-zona! McDonald Makes Her Mark
How did the Arizona women's basketball team make it to its first Final Four in program history? Look no further than these three plays from the team's All-American.
The outcome of a basketball game can flip in an instant. Perhaps no player has exhibited more control over those pivotal moments than Aari McDonald of the University of Arizona women's basketball team.
The senior guard out of Fresno, California, established herself as the squad's on- and off-court leader the second she arrived on campus in 2018, but McDonald has taken her game to another level during the Wildcats' historic NCAA tournament run.
"She has been amazing," said head coach Adia Barnes after the Wildcats defeated the University of Indiana 66-53 to clinch Arizona's first Final Four berth in program history. "Stars make big plays. They step up when it really counts. I have seen a different Aari in the tournament. She's more relaxed, more at ease. She is really leading the team in so many ways. She has been unstoppable."
The accolades speak for themselves: Pac-12 Player of the Year, two-time Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, second-team Associated Press All-American, No. 1 in the Pac-12 in scoring and steals. But it is in the moments between the highlights where McDonald truly shines.
The Wildcats have faced their share of adversity throughout the 2020-2021 season but are one of only four teams still vying for the national championship. Why is that? It comes down to a combination of preparation, luck and toughness. These three plays help illustrate why this squad will go down in the history books for Arizona women's basketball.
After dispatching Stony Brook in the tournament's opening round, the Wildcats faced off against a hard-nosed, defensive-minded BYU squad. Points were tough to come by in this game, with both teams scrapping and hustling for every loose ball and every glimpse of daylight.
"I call myself a great defender, and with that comes serious responsibility," McDonald said. "We don't foul, and we don't get screened. I knew the game was coming down to the wire and my team needed me to make a play."
Arizona led 50-46 with 11 seconds remaining and a spot in the Sweet 16 on the line. BYU's leader, Shaylee Gonzales, had the ball on the left wing. McDonald knew what Gonzales was going to do before she did it.
"Shaylee is a great player, but I was able to pick up on some of her tendencies during the game," McDonald said. "Coach Barnes pointed out a few things during the film work leading up to the game, so I had a good idea what to expect."
Gonzales went into attack mode. She dribbled left and tried to cross over to her right – a move she can usually count on. If Gonzales could get the ball to her right hand with a full head of steam, she would be nearly unstoppable. McDonald was waiting for it. She cleanly ripped the ball from Gonzales and broke free for the game-clinching layup. Ballgame.
The Wildcats faced Texas A&M on March 27. The Aggies had a clear game plan in place. They started out in a zone defense to try to slow the pace of play and allow their bigger, taller defenders to guard against McDonald's drives to the rim. Arizona, meanwhile, wanted to speed the game up and use quickness and athleticism to get Texas A&M's players out of their comfort zone.
The Wildcats won that battle in a big way, forcing 19 turnovers on their way to a 74-59 victory.
Texas A&M's zone defense backfired, thanks in large part to McDonald's outside shooting. She made six of her 12 three-point attempts and led all scorers with 31 points.
"People have been going under screens and daring me to shoot it all year," McDonald said. "I take everything personally. Anytime someone goes under a screen on me, I take it personally. These are the shots I work on in the gym when nobody is around. To see them finally start to drop, it's so good."
One of those three-pointers stands out in her mind above all others. Arizona was leading 55-44 with 1:10 to go in the third quarter. Trinity Baptiste set a screen at the top of the key for McDonald. Even though she'd already made a bunch of jump shots in this game, Texas A&M's defensive gave McDonald a wide-open look at another three-pointer.
The left-handed McDonald lined up her shot and it drilled the front part of the rim. McDonald squatted and leaned like a golfer trying to urge a putt closer to the hole. The ball bounced straight in the air, softly off the backboard and through the net. Ballgame. Was it a lucky bounce? Maybe. But players like McDonald tend to create their own luck.
"I knew the second the ball hit the rim that it was going in," McDonald said. "I said to myself, 'Oh, this is money.' I hit the pose and I knew it would light a fire under me and my teammates. I'll never forget that shot."
On March 29, Arizona battled Indiana for a spot in the Final Four. The game was leaning Arizona's way, thanks to another tremendous all-around effort from McDonald. The Wildcats were up by seven with 2:35 remaining. A driving McDonald got her feet tangled with an Indiana defender and twisted her ankle.
Up to this point, McDonald had seemed impervious to pain throughout the entire tournament, but this one hurt. She winced and fell to the court. Is this just a turned ankle, or is this something more?
"All I can do in that moment is tell myself to control my breathing and let the pain work itself out," McDonald said. "I keep repeating to myself, 'I'm fine, I'm fine. Let your teammates know you're fine.' I didn't want anyone thinking this was going to affect me in any way."
Was there any doubt that she would return to the game?
"I told Coach Barnes and our trainer right away – I'm going back in."
With victory just seconds away, who ended up with the game-clinching rebound and layup? McDonald.
The Wildcats will look to keep their run alive against the University of Connecticut Huskies – the most storied women's basketball program in history – and UConn's own phenom, Paige Bueckers. The game tips off at 6:30 p.m. Friday on ESPN.
"We don't fear anybody. They put on their shoes just like us. We're not scared of the name across the jersey," McDonald said. "They are very skilled players, but the way we have been playing together, I definitely wouldn't sleep on us. We're ready."
No matter what happens, this team has forged a bond that will last a lifetime amid one of the most stressful and unorthodox seasons imaginable. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the squad to spend more time together than even the most tightknit teams, and McDonald realizes she is in the middle of something special.
"These are the ladies I see every day, multiple times per day. We genuinely like each other. We care for each other so much. We play so hard for one another. We're all so proud to be doing this together," McDonald said.
WhatArizona vs. Connecticut in the Final Four
WhereAlamodome in San Antonio, Texas
When6:30 p.m. (PT) on ESPN
University of Arizona in the News