SAN ANTONIO – Two days ago, Aari McDonald went over the basics of what would make UConn such a formidable opponent for Arizona in the Final Four: a powerhouse, well-trained, with skilled players.
Then he offered a counterpoint.
“But hey,” said the upper guard. “I had my opportunities with my teammates. Ride or die, I’m going to war with them. “
It turned out that Arizona didn’t make defeating Connecticut look like war. Instead, it came out as a little fight. In the first women’s Final Four in the show’s history, the Wildcats were never far behind, giving their legendary opponent no room to breathe. They held a double-digit lead for most of the game and led the Huskies to their biggest deficit of the season with 14 points. Even a brief run from UConn in the middle of the fourth quarter failed to reduce the gap to less than five. In the end, Arizona achieved its first place in the national championship game, 69–59.
It was UConn’s first double-digit loss at the tournament since 2007, six national championships ago for the Huskies.
As McDonald had suggested on Wednesday, this victory featured some significant contributions from her teammates: Sam Thomas scored 12, Cate Reese added 11 and Helena Pueyo had eight rebounds.
But the cheering force was all McDonald’s. He had a three on Arizona’s first possession of the game. (“Honestly, Coach Barnes hates it when I take three on the first possession. But, I mean, she’s not going to tell me to stop shooting when I feel it from the center.”) And he continued in the same vein from there. . In what has been a tournament full of McDonald’s electric performances, this was her at her finest, making her presence felt seemingly everywhere at once. UConn had no response, forming a double or triple team to no avail.
He finished with 26 points, seven rebounds and two steals.
“He just dominated the whole game from start to finish,” said UConn head coach Geno Auriemma. “We pride ourselves on being pretty good at certain things. We had no answer for her. “
The Huskies seemed unusually disconnected almost from the start. They shot just 35.7% from the field, a far cry from their usual 51.1%. Paige Bueckers, her star first-year point guard, had three turnovers for four assists. Their top scorer, Christyn Williams, fouled with nearly four minutes remaining. (Although in a contested decision in a game that included several of them). Some of this seemed self-inflicted; Auriemma pointed to the youth of this team and a mentality that she labeled “immature.” But that started with the pace set by Arizona’s frenzied and pressing defense, which focused, like its offense, on McDonald’s.
“She’s a great defender,” Wildcats head coach Adia Barnes said. “It alters things, it makes them difficult. She didn’t allow Paige to really get into the flow … Our team feeds on her. We build our defense around his speed and pressure. “
His appearance in the title game will crown a fairy tale boom for Arizona. When Barnes signed on to coach his alma mater in 2016, the program seemed stagnant, more than a decade after his last appearance at the tournament. When McDonald came on board as a sophomore transfer in 2017, the team limped in to a lousy 6-24 record when she was left out. However, in the years since, the Wildcats have steadily improved, winning a WNIT championship in 2019 and moving toward an especially promising season interrupted by the pandemic in 2019-20. Now, they are looking towards a national championship.
“Man, is that crazy,” McDonald mused on Friday. “We never gave up. We kept the faith. We keep working non-stop. We trust each other, we would do anything for each other. You definitely see how we’re sticking to that. “
The night underscored one of the NCAA’s strangest mistakes in a tournament that has had a lot of them. The Final Four hype video originally posted Thursday morning had only featured three teams – Arizona was conspicuously absent. The team had taken note of the fact that it had been given a minimal presence in previous highlight clips; barely appeared on the pregame reel for their Sweet 16 win over Texas A&M, but it just Three equipment shown in the video of the The last four? It was a sign of disrespect, McDonald said, and she came out on the floor Friday night to prove them wrong. But his coach took a more relaxed approach.
“We don’t care,” Barnes said with a smile. “We believe in each other, we believe in what we do, that’s just motivating. That’s something like …Okay, teach them, participate in the next video.“
The Wildcats, in fact, showed them. But you don’t have to worry about the next video. Instead, they have a championship game to play.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.