As the stakes get higher, Aari McDonald keeps getting better.
The senior guard had 33 points, 11 rebounds and four assists on 12-of-20 shooting as the Arizona Wildcats beat Indiana 66-53 in the Elite Eight on Monday to advance to their first-ever Final Four.
McDonald is now averaging 25 points per game in the NCAA Tournament and just posted consecutive 30-point games for the first time in two years.
“We just beat a great team,” she said after cutting down the nets. “I mean, man, I’m proud of my team so much. It’s crazy. I give thanks to God. This is a big deal. We just created more history.”
And set out to do what McDonald envisioned when, a year ago to the day, she announced she was returning to Arizona for her redshirt senior season.
“I came back to make history. I also came back to sharpen my game,” she said. “People said I can’t shoot. Now look what I’m doing.”
McDonald, a career 28 percent 3-point shooter, is 11 for her last 18 from long range. She buried five 3-pointers against Indiana after sinking a career-high six against Texas A&M in the Sweet Sixteen two days earlier. One of those five treys was a banked-in stepback that made it clear that this, once again, was her night.
“When I’m feeling it, I’m feeling it,” she said. “Coach isn’t going to tell me to stop shooting and my teammates aren’t either. ... I knew I wasn’t doing too well in the regular season, conference [tournament]. I was taking bad shots. But I’m letting the game come to me. My teammates are putting me in successful positions, the coaches are putting me in successful positions as well. I’m really just taking what the defense is giving me, honestly.”
McDonald also made the hustle plays that make her such a special player. Like prying an offensive rebound away from an Indiana forward and laying it to give the Wildcats a 46-44 lead heading into the fourth quarter. The Hoosiers had just tied it and appeared to be building some momentum.
“We knew we couldn’t trade buckets,” McDonald said. “They’re a good offensive team. We knew we had to buckle down on defense, take pride in our individual assignments. We were rebounding, as well. It’s not too often we win the rebound war, and we did today.”
Head coach Adia Barnes ranked this game as McDonald’s best in an Arizona uniform. The way things are going, she will outdo it Friday against UConn in the Final Four.
“She’s been amazing,” Barnes said. “I mean, stars make big plays, they step up when it really counts. No one remembers how you start, they remember how you finish. Aari said it perfectly. At times this year she struggled a little bit. I think she wasn’t letting the game come to her, really trying to really carry us so much. I think I’ve seen a different Aari in the tournament. Just more relaxed, more at ease, really leading the team in so many different ways, letting the game come to her. She’s been unstoppable.”
Not even a gruesome ankle injury could stop her. With less than three minutes left in the fourth and Arizona nursing a 57-50 lead, McDonald got tangled up trying to dribble around an Indiana defender and writhed in pain on the court for a few minutes before walking off gingerly to the sideline.
McDonald got some treatment, checked back into the game with 1:54 left, and calmly knocked down three key free throws to seal the win.
“I never cry, so that’s how you kind of knew I was in pain,” she said. “But, I mean, I shook it off. My team needs me, I wanted to get back on the court. I had to suck it up, but I’ll be fine.”
There’s still more work to be done. The Wildcats, despite competing in their first NCAA Tournament since 2005, are now just one win away from the national championship game and two from winning the entire thing.
As confetti rained from the rafters after Monday’s win, Barnes and McDonald shared a warm embrace and reflected on just how unbelievable that sentence is. It was only a few years ago when Arizona went 6-24 after McDonald transferred in from Washington.
“She just said, ‘Who would have thought?’” McDonald said. “‘She just said she’s glad we’re on this journey together. We faced a lot of adversity. Nobody believed in us but us. She’s so happy. She just said, ‘We can go get this whole thing.”’