And not just because her team, the Washington Huskies, would be facing the winner in the quarterfinals — she was intrigued by what she saw from Adia Barnes’ Wildcats.
“They gave Oregon a run for their money and I was like OK, they’re competitive. They don’t want to lose,” McDonald said. “It was great to see Adia’s players work hard and want to win.”
The 11th-seeded Wildcats wound up losing a close game to the 6th-seeded Ducks, but Arizona won in a different way — three months later, McDonald would be one of “Adia’s players.”
The freshman point guard transferred to Arizona in June.
“No disrespect to Washington,” McDonald said, “but this campus is better.”
McDonald said she had thoughts about transferring after her freshman season concluded, and knew it was “time to go” when UW head coach Mike Neighbors left for Arkansas in April.
Arizona, though Pac-12 rivals with Washington, was a natural fit for McDonald because of her relationship with Barnes.
Prior to becoming UA’s head coach, Barnes was an assistant coach at Washington and helped recruit McDonald to UW out of Fresno, Calif.
The thought of playing under Barnes — and staying in the Pac-12 conference — was something McDonald couldn’t pass up.
“I want to play in the top conference and (the) competition,” she said.
The best part about playing for Barnes, McDonald said, is the freedom she offers her players. Barnes plans to give the 5-foot-7 point guard free reign in UA’s uptempo offense.
“The type of offense we run, I think she’s going to be great,” Barnes said. “She’s got experience and she’s smart, so who wouldn’t give a player like Aari freedom? She’s going to have freedom to play her game. I’m not going to pigeon-hole her in one thing. She’s going to be really valuable for us.”
McDonald’s game is characterized by dazzling speed and lockdown defensive ability, and she proved to be a dangerous scoring threat at Washington, too, as she was UW’s third-leading scorer, averaging just north of 9.0 points per game.
“I would say fast,” McDonald described her playing style.
Barnes interjected, “She is really fast. That’s an understatement.”
McDonald continued, “I have great defense and I might be small, but I love to rebound with the bigs.”
NCAA transfer rules will force McDonald to sit out the 2017-18 season before having three years of eligibility starting in 2018-19, and she plans to use the year off to help mentor Arizona’s five freshmen and develop her game.
Eventually, she hopes to help put Arizona women’s basketball on the map. The Wildcats, entering Barnes’ second season, have not had a winning season since 2010-11.
“Just working on my vocal skills, and my shot, and my all-around game,” McDonald said. “I also want to help the freshmen. Just let them know that you gotta play hard, you gotta be vocal. That’s what’s important on the court.”
It’s a lesson McDonald learned from none other than Kelsey Plum, who she shared a backcourt with at Washington.
Plum, most known for being women’s college basketball’s all-time leading scorer and the No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 WNBA Draft, gave simple, yet resonating advice to McDonald.
“Don’t fear anyone and work hard,” Plum told her.
McDonald heeded the advice and earned a spot on the Pac-12 All-Freshman team.
“Just watching Kelsey, it was so inspiring,” McDonald said shortly after arriving in Tucson. “She took me under her wing and just seeing her work hard — she’s in the gym early mornings and is the last one to leave — it’s inspiring and it definitely rubbed off on me.
“That’s definitely what I’m going to carry over here.”
Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire