The first Final Four in program history was on the line. Who on these defensive-minded teams could find their offensive groove and grab it? Arizona proved that they were the superior offensive team on a night when they only turned the Indiana Hoosiers over nine time, but went on to win 66-53.
“Yesterday made it a year (since) I said I was coming back,” Arizona star Aari McDonald said. “This is crazy how things come full circle. I mean, you make goals and to see yourself and your team achieve them like this.”
McDonald led the way once again, as she has for 91 games since she put on an Arizona jersey. She ended the night with a double-double and scored over 30 for the second straight game. Her game ended with 33 points on 12-for-20 shooting, 11 rebounds, 4 assists and one steal.
It was a performance worthy of the Mercado Region Most Outstanding Player.
“She’s an elite player and she stepped up big-time,” said Indiana forward Mackenzie Holmes.
McDonald also caused hearts to stop around Tucson. With 2:54 left in the game, she tweaked her ankle after tripping over the foot of a Hoosier. She tried to get up, then went back to the court and covered her face with her jersey.
“I never cry,” McDonald said. “That’s how you kind of knew that I was like in pain, but I should get up. My team needs me and I want to get back on the court.”
With the earlier game between Connecticut and Baylor decided by an injury to Baylor’s point guard (and a non-call by the officials), the thought that this one might be impacted the same way was real.
As head coach Adia Barnes and the trainer knelt by her side, McDonald laid on the court in pain. She left, was worked on at the training table, and returned to the game.
The offense was clicking for Arizona from distance. A team often criticized for their lack of offensive production and ability to shoot the ball went 9 for 21 from 3.
McDonald came out hot from the tip. She had double figures in her 91st straight game after just 10 minutes. She did it on 4-for-7 shooting and two of those buckets were 3-pointers, adding to McDonald’s newfound deadly outside shot.
At the half she was up to 17 points and the Wildcats were up 27-23. Just 20 more minutes to the next step of their historical journey.
“Stars make big plays and they step up when it really counts,” Barnes said.
With almost 90 seconds in the game, McDonald began to feel that it was over. They would advance.
“We were getting the stops towards the end, and so I had no doubt,” she said. “I just knew. I was like, ‘We got things we sold.’”
Maybe McDonald could have done it all by herself, but she did not need to. Trinity Baptiste came up big for the second time in this NCAA Tournament. Baptiste also had a double-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds. She got under the skin of a few Hoosiers, too.
Helena Pueyo did what McDonald and Barnes have been begging her to do: she kept shooting even when she missed. In the fourth quarter, they started going in. Pueyo ended the night with six points and a key hit-ahead pass that led to a Bendu Yeaney layup in the final moments.
“I‘m just so happy my teammates finally believe and they’re having the confidence,” McDonald said. “I knew they could. My teammates, they keep stepping up and they keep hitting big shots when we need them. I love that.”
Cate Reese had just 5 points and 6 rebounds before fouling out, but set critical screens and played strong defense when she wasn’t battling foul trouble.
“I thought she gave us buckets when it counted,” Barnes said. “I thought she played some good defense. I thought she played strong, and it wasn’t her best game but a couple weeks ago if Cate would have only had five points, we wouldn’t have won.”
When the confetti finally fell and they cut down the nets, the returners got to experience something they thought might be in their futures last year. Many were projecting a No. 3 seed at that time with the early games held in Tucson. Then, everything stopped.
The 2020 seniors—Dominique McBryde, Tee Tee Starks and Amari Carter—were not given the option to come back by the NCAA, so it was up to those who did come back to do it. McDonald decided to forego the WNBA Draft and try to fulfill the dream.
“This is truly for them,” McDonald said about last year’s seniors. “We were bummed that our season was cut short last year. For us to perform at the level we’re performing and on this big stage, it means a lot and I know they’re smiling. They’re watching us, supporting us from wherever they are, and this is truly for them. And I hope they are enjoying the ride and enjoying watching this.”
The Wildcats will play UConn on Friday. The Huskies defeated Arizona in the Sweet Sixteen in 1998 to end Barnes’ senior season. They have to chance to set another milestone and accomplish another goal.
“We just need this confidence momentum going into UConn,” McDonald said. “UConn, we already know what they’re about: powerhouse, well-coached, skillful players. But, hey, I got my chances on my teammates. Ride or die. I’m going to war with them.”