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Aari McDonald saving best for last as Arizona reaches first Elite Eight

Arizona v Texas A&M Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

Aari McDonald bent her knees and took a hard look at the hoop as her stepback 3 clanked off the front rim and glanced off the backboard. Then, almost as if she had willed it in, it spun into the bottom of the net. Texas A&M called timeout and McDonald screamed to the heavens.

The 3-pointer gave Arizona a 14-point lead in the final minute of the third quarter and felt like the dagger in a convincing 74-59 win at the Alamodome.

The friendly roll also punctuated what everyone could already see: this was her night. McDonald finished with 31 points and a career-high six 3-pointers, carving up the Aggies as Arizona punched its ticket to its first-ever Elite Eight.

“Great players show up on the big stage,” head coach Adia Barnes said. “That’s what she did.”

McDonald set the tone by scoring 19 first-half points, only turning the ball over twice, and putting the clamps on Jordan Nixon, the Texas A&M guard who had 35 points in the Round of 32 but only three against the always-active Arizona defense.

“I knew once I started hitting, my teammates started hitting, my defense, I had no doubt we were going to win at all times,” McDonald said. “We did a great job of controlling the tempo.”

McDonald has already announced that she will be going pro after this season, so she is playing every NCAA Tournament game like it’s her last in a Wildcat uniform. She never planned to leave quietly. Before the tournament, she penned a letter in The Player’s Tribune saying “we can do anything in this program.”

There’s no reason to doubt her now.

First NCAA Tournament appearance since 2005? Check.

First Sweet Sixteen since 1998? Check.

First Elite Eight? Check.

First Final Four? Why not? All that stands in the way is 4-seed Indiana.

“We want to do something special,” McDonald said. “I think we have the chance to.”

She believed that from day one when no one outside McKale Center did. McDonald transferred to a downtrodden Arizona program in 2017-18 and stayed upbeat when it went 6-24 in her sit-out season, the most losing she has experienced in her life.

McDonald had unwavering faith in Barnes, the first-time head coach who recruited her to UW when she was a sophomore in high school. Sure, it was hard to watch the losses pile up, but McDonald put her head down in practice and tuned up her game knowing brighter days were ahead.

“That says a lot,” she said. “That says I trust Coach Barnes with my life pretty much.”

McDonald arrived in Tucson as an all-conference level talent but will leave as a three-time All-American and the greatest player in Arizona women’s basketball history.

She didn’t need this NCAA Tournament run to earn that title. She did that by being an unbelievably consistent force in the program’s resurgence, scoring in double figures in all 90 games (and counting). She led Arizona to a WNIT championship in 2019, then a historic 2019-20 season that was cut short by the coronavirus pandemic but would have resulted in Arizona being a 2- or 3-seed in the NCAA Tournament.

How far would they have gone? McDonald returned this season just to find out. And with her running the show, anything seems possible.

She’s pouring in 23 points per game in the NCAA Tournament, her efficiency is up and her turnovers are down. She’s still the same lightning-quick lynchpin of an Arizona Defense™ that has suffocated even the most talented teams.

Should I mention that she’s played all but three minutes in these last two wins?

“There is no other player that has impacted their team more than Aari has impacted Arizona,” Barnes said.

In this tournament or over the last three years.

“What a feeling,” McDonald said. “I’m just speechless. It’s crazy. It’s exciting. Trying not to get emotional. Man, nobody believed in us. We’re coached by a great person, She’s like a big sister to us, a mother. It’s been a wonderful ride. It’s not over yet. Like Coach said, we’re here for the long haul. We do not want to go home. It’s do or die and we want to get to the championship game. We’re peaking at the right time and we want to make more history.”