SAN ANTONIO – Aari McDonald watched the video once, again, then again.
She turned to the people around her, her teammates Sam Thomas and Cate Reese and head coach Adia Barnes, to confirm that they had caught what she had: “I didn’t see anything red.”
The Arizona senior was right. The official NCAA women’s basketball Twitter account had just posted a video of the Final Four featuring… just three teams. The red Wildcats uniforms were conspicuously absent. (The NCAA later removed the post after being called.) For a team that has been displaced by other more flashy narratives so far in this tournament, this was both normal and an added jolt of motivation.
“It was frustrating,” McDonald said. “I definitely took it as disrespectful. But it is what it is … I mean, we’re not worried about it. Let’s do our thing. And you’ll definitely see that that translates to on the court. “
Not surprisingly, Arizona had to scratch a spot on the national stage in this Final Four. There’s No. 1 seed Stanford, with her consistent excellence at both ends of the court, led by the all-time winning coach in the women’s game in Tara VanDerveer. Next up is the perennial powerhouse UConn, led to a thirteenth consecutive Final Four by one of the best freshmen ever at Paige Bueckers, trained by the second Winning coach of all time in Geno Auriemma. Then there’s South Carolina, which looks like it could be on its way to establishing itself as a similar powerhouse, in its third Final Four in six years with Dawn Staley. And finally, there is Arizona, here for the first time.
But dismissing his story as less convincing would be a mistake. The show’s turnaround may well have been ripped from Disney: Barnes, who played for the Wildcats in the ’90s, returned to his alma mater five years ago to lead a team that hadn’t even qualified for the tournament in more than one of each. The beginning was tough. McDonald, now the team’s biggest star, its one-season scoring record holder and Pac-12 Player of the Year, came aboard the University of Washington as a sophomore in 2017 and watched the Wildcats go. from 6 to 24 while she wasn’t sitting down. due to transfer rules. Since then, however, Arizona has been on a steady rise. In 2019 he won the WNIT. In 2020, he saw his best season yet, which would have been his first place in a tournament with Barnes, interrupted by COVID-19. And now, in 2021, Arizona has finally made it, not just to the tournament, but all the way to the Final Four, where it will face UConn.
“She’s a year ahead of me,” UConn’s Auriemma said of Barnes. “We went to the Final Four in my sixth year in Connecticut. But they have shown that each year, they can build on the previous year and without compromising who [Barnes] he is and what kind of player he is looking for and his style of play. ”
McDonald highlights it best. The shooting guard has shown both consistency – he scored in double figures in all 87 of his games over three seasons at Arizona – and steady improvement over the years. While her scoring draws most of the attention, she has also developed as a defender and is projected as a first-round pick in the WNBA draft for next month. She shone more with each successive game in the tournament, losing 31 points to No. 2 Texas A&M in the Sweet 16, and 33 to No. 4 Indiana in the Elite Eight.
“Aari, her mindset is not to be not ready for this moment,” Barnes said. “I think you can see that with his game. He has raised his level of play in the tournament. “
UConn is, of course, a tough opponent. Arizona’s strength is its defense, ranked sixth in the country by Her Hoop Stats, but it will have to contain one of the best offenses in the country here. McDonald is an explosive and talented point guard, but so is UConn’s Bueckers. (“We can’t trade buckets,” McDonald laughed when asked about the confrontation. “That’s going to be dangerous.”) And the depth and balance of UConn means there is much, much, much more to deal with than Bueckers. . To stand a chance, Arizona will need to rely on its defensive prowess in hopes of controlling the pace and slowing down the game.
So Arizona knows that she probably doesn’t think they can do it. But that’s fine with them, after all, that’s been the line with them before in the tournament, and they’ve come this far anyway.
“We’ve had the same chip on our shoulder from the beginning,” Barnes said. “Getting to the tournament was not enough. Winning the first game was not enough. Going to Sweet 16, we were not satisfied, Elite Eight, no … We are not satisfied. Even though we are not the favorites. “
Just don’t leave them out of the advertising video next time.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.