SAN ANTONIO — This week has been the first time in a while since Arizona fans gathered to watch the Wildcats play, but they remembered the traditions like they had never been away. Stand until the defense allows points. They stood for just over three minutes until Connecticut got its first basket.
That defense and the vastly-improved offensive output from Arizona seemed to be something the Huskies didn’t expect. The Wildcats never trailed, and they never really looked bothered by anything the Huskies did as they stunned the most-celebrated team in women’s basketball and their national player of the year 69-59 to earn a berth in the national championship game.
Maybe it was the fact that the NCAA’s social media accounts put out a hype video earlier this week that included just three teams—Arizona was nowhere to be found—or maybe it was the “no one believed” mantra that their coach has been repeating for almost three weeks. Whatever it was, the Wildcats were out to prove that they more than belonged.
“Oh, we were highly upset,” Aari McDonald said. “We definitely took it as a sign of disrespect. We all got the call to go down there and do media. For us to be left out, it wasn’t cool at all. But that was one of our motivations coming in. Okay, y’all think it’s the Final Three? Okay, we going to show y’all. We shocked the world tonight. Keep betting against my teammates and I... We’re going to prove you wrong.”
Arizona led from wire to wire to reach its first national championship game in program history. The Wildcats will face fellow Pac-12 team Stanford for the third time this season.
As for the non-believers? Arizona head coach Adia Barnes had a message to her team about them.
“I did not cuss out the NCAA,” Barnes said. “I did say a cuss word. The cuss word is basically, forget everybody, more of a chosen word. Forget everybody if they don’t believe in us, because we believe in us. That is my team. I believe in them. I will run through a wall for them. I’m just so proud because they do whatever I ask. They believe. That’s all I can ask for of the team. They played hard for me. So I give it my all.”
McDonald and Sam Thomas came out on a mission. Two 3-pointers from McDonald and one from Thomas had the Wildcats up 9-3 just under four minutes into the game.
“Honestly, Coach Barnes, she hates when I take threes on the first possession,” McDonald said. “But, I mean, she’s not going to tell me to stop shooting. I’m feeling it from downtown. I was just watching how the defense was playing me. It was momentum. To see Sam hit that three, I mean, if we can get Sam involved any way, I love her to shoot more. I mean, definitely gave us momentum and made us play defense even harder.”
McDonald didn’t stop. She surprised the Huskies with her speed and her accuracy, with her defense and her offense. She had eight points at the end of the first quarter on 50 percent shooting.
The Wildcats’ floor general ended the night with 26 points, 7 rebounds and 2 steals.
Thomas played like a senior who was not ready for it all to end. She was a strong offensive presence while also playing her usual stellar defense. She contributed 12 points, 5 rebounds, a block and a steal.
Despite battling foul trouble all night, Cate Reese was a threat when she was able to stay on the floor. She kicked in 11 points, a rebound and 3 steals.
The Wildcats’ biggest opponent turned out not to be the Connecticut Huskies, but a tightly-called game. Reese picked up her third foul less than 30 seconds into the third quarter. Baptiste got hers two minutes later, and Lauren Ware had four at 7:58 in the third. All three had four fouls with just under five minutes left in the game and Baptiste would eventually foul out.
But it was the Huskies who would be stung by the referees first. With the game within seven points and 3:51 to go, Christyn Williams—Connecticut’s leading scorer on the night with 20 points—was called for a foul on McDonald. It was an and-1. It was also Williams’ fifth foul.
AP National Player of the Year Paige Bueckers was almost silent in the first half, but tried to lead the comeback in the second half. She ended the game with 18 points, 13 of which were scored in the final 20 minutes.
“Everyone knows that basketball is a game of runs,” McDonald said. “We knew we were going to take a couple of their punches down the stretch. The maturity that my team showed, we never got rattled. We kept being more feisty on defense, talking to each other. Hey, we have to lock up, take pride. We have to value every possession, whether that’s defense or offense. We stuck with the game plan.”
Connecticut would close the lead to as few as five points with 90 seconds to go. It seemed like an eternity from the sidelines, but they could not overcome the Cinderellas.
“I’m just proud that we were able to beat a really good team that’s really hard to guard,” Barnes said. “I was not comfortable even at five points in a minute-and-a-half is scary against them. This year they’ve stolen a lot of games down the stretch. The clock couldn’t run faster. Just proud we found a way to bear down and get stops. We beat a really, really good team. We just played a little bit better tonight.”
The Huskies began fouling early, perhaps banking on Arizona’s recent woes at the free-throw line.
“If you look at the way we shoot free throws lately, I was not surprised,” Barnes said. “We’re actually sometimes shooting the 3 better than we shoot free throws.”
To that point, the Wildcats went 21 for 30 from the line, but it wasn’t enough for Connecticut.
With 20.1 seconds to go and the Wildcats leading by seven, the Arizona faithful began to sense it. The Huskies passed the ball out of bounds. A roar went up.
The fans remembered that feeling of supporting a team that shocks the world.
And McDonald made sure people remembered her name.
“Can I add one more thing?” she asked after the moderator called the end of questions. “My name is Aari, not Ari. That’s all I wanted to say. Thank you.”
That’s “Aari,” pronounced the same as the first syllable in “Arizona.”