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Aari McDonald, Arizona Defense™ put nation on notice with Final Four win vs. UConn

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Arizona v Connecticut Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

SAN ANTONIO — With Arizona leading by double figures in the third quarter, social media was aflame at the prospect of UConn losing to the underdog Wildcats in the Final Four.

USA Today’s Dan Wolken summed up a popular narrative developing on Twitter, asking: “What’s going on with UConn here?” as if something was wrong with the Huskies.

Nothing was. The darlings of the women’s college basketball world were just the latest victim of a buzzsaw that national writers should be well aware of by now.

That is, Aari McDonald and that Arizona Defense™ who are now one win away from winning the national championship and seem destined to claim it. Over the past week, they have beaten a 1, 2 and 4 seed by double digits.

In their first-ever Final Four, the Wildcats made those vaunted Huskies look like puppies. Scared. Flustered. Unthreatening. Arizona never trailed, outrebounded UConn, and had more points in the paint despite being undersized.

UConn finished the first half with more turnovers (9) than field goals (8) and its 22 first-half points were its fewest all season. The Huskies trailed by 10 at the half and also by 10 with 6:57 left in the fourth quarter. You wondered when they were going to make one of their patented runs to get back in the game.

Not only did it never happen, it never even felt possible. Arizona’s defense was so suffocating that I asked myself during the game, “Man, where is UConn going to find offense right now?”

Mind you, this was a team that was averaging almost 83 points per game entering the night. The Wildcats held them to 59 on 36% shooting, and they’ve now held seven of their last eight opponents under 40% shooting.

Arizona Defense™ is just that good.

“Definitely you’ve seen that on display tonight,” McDonald said. “UConn, that’s a powerhouse. I mean, it doesn’t get any better than that.”

While the Huskies withered under the spotlight, the Wildcats played with a freedom of a team that had nothing to lose. No one expected them to get this far, so why not use that to their advantage?

They hit timely 3s and stayed cool, calm and collected at the free throw line, knocking them down with ease to ice the game.

“The maturity that my team showed, we never got rattled,” McDonald said.

Adia Barnes and her team have been able to draw motivation from all sorts of sources during the postseason.

The NCAA left them out of a Final Four promo video.

The oddsmakers pegged them as 13.5-point underdogs.

McDonald saw UConn guard Paige Bueckers become the first freshman ever to be the Associated Press Player of the Year.

UConn coach Geno Auriemma said Baylor, not Arizona, was the best defensive team the Huskies have faced this season.

It all added up.

An animated Barnes was shown flashing two middle fingers to her team in the huddle as they put the finishing touches on Friday’s victory. She provided reporters with the PG version of what happened in that moment.

“Forget everybody if they don’t believe in us, because we believe in us,” she said. “It just motivates us. I love it. I’ve been an underdog all my life. Too small to do this, too this to do that, too inexperienced to do this. We prove them wrong every time. I don’t care. It just motivates me and my team.”

McDonald isn’t one who needs bulletin board material to get up for games, but it certainly didn’t hurt. She set the tone early by burying two 3s and never relinquished control of the game. Whether it was hitting a jump shot in the eye of a defender or disrupting UConn’s flow with her ball pressure, she dominated on both ends of the court.

McDonald played 37 minutes and was as a game-high +12. Bueckers was a game-low -10.

“I don’t think we’ve had to play against a guard as good as she is, and she proved it tonight,” Auriemma said. “She just dominated the entire game start to finish. We pride ourselves on being pretty good at certain things. We had no answer for her.”

McDonald finished with her lowest point total in three games...but that still meant 26 points on 17 shots. She, again, was feeling it from the 3-point line, going 4 for 9 from long range.

She has now made 15 triples over her last three games, proving a point she set out to make when she returned for her senior season.

“People said I can’t shoot,” she said last game, “now look what I’m doing.”

It’s Steph Curry-level stuff. McDonald sank a pull-up from Austin that put Arizona up by 12 in the second quarter. Earlier in the period, she drilled a stepback in transition that gave Arizona a nine-point lead.

She rolled her shoulders, crossed her arms, and shot a cold look toward the crowd.

“I was thinking in that moment, I’m the dog, I’m the stuff,” she said. “I was thinking, ‘Nobody can stop me.”’

It’s true. They can’t. McDonald is averaging 30 points per game over her last three games and making 56% of her 3s. She’s an even better driver.

She’s also the best player in the country right now, yet somehow in every press conference in the NCAA Tournament at least one national reporter has mispronounced her name.

On Friday, she finally corrected them.

“Can I add one more thing?” she asked. “My name is Aari, not Ari.”

By now you’d think they’d know.