SAN ANTONIO — With a national championship on the line, there was no doubt where Arizona was going for the final shot.
Aari McDonald’s hot shooting was a big reason the Wildcats had made it this far. Why not see if there was any magic left in that well?
“It was Aari or nothing,” head coach Adia Barnes said.
Stanford, not exactly naive, did everything they could to deny McDonald the sideline inbounds pass. Then they threw three defenders after she caught the ball near midcourt and tried to knife into the lane.
With white jerseys crowding her left, right and center, McDonald could only hoist a long desperation 2 over four outstretched arms as the final seconds ticked away. The way she had willed the Wildcats to victory all throughout the NCAA Tournament, you expected her prayer to be answered.
“I was for sure scared for a minute when it left her hands,” Stanford guard Kiana Williams said.
But, like the sound of a dream being smashed with a sledgehammer, McDonald’s last-second shot clanked off the back rim and the Cardinal dogpiled to celebrate their newly-minted national championship.
Confetti fell from the rafters as the teary-eyed Wildcats silently shuffled to their locker room, but no heads were hanging.
“We’re leaving San Antonio with a lot of pride,” McDonald said.
They know this loss doesn’t take away from what they accomplished in their first NCAA Tournament in 16 years.
They put a once-downtrodden program on the map.
They reached their first Elite Eight, Final Four and national championship game—and nearly won it despite having an off night from the field.
Arizona shot 29 percent and McDonald, who went nuclear in the first five rounds, finally cooled off, missing some shots that she had swished all tournament.
They almost overcame that anyway because of what actually got them here. No, not McDonald’s otherworldly shooting or five-star talent, but a relentless, swarming, insert-adjective-here defense paired with a never-ending belief that they could achieve the unachievable.
You know that’s true because McDonald shot 5 for 20 and Arizona only lost by one point to a powerhouse team that was bigger, stronger and more talented. That patented Arizona Defense™ forced 21 turnovers and held the Cardinal to 54 points, their fewest all season.
Anytime Stanford looked like they were going to bury the Wildcats, Arizona made a hustle play—usually a steal-and-score—to get them right back in it. They trailed by eight with 7:09 left but managed to whittle the deficit to 51-50 with 3:35 left.
Had they just been a little bit better offensively—like make one more free throw, cashed in on turnovers or, yes, hit one more jumper—they would be carrying the trophy back to Tucson as an improbable national champion.
To outsiders, at least.
“Just proud of this team, our resiliency, our mental toughness, our want to win,” Barnes said. “The way they fought for me. They never had a doubt. They looked me in the eyes and fought. I love them. I wouldn’t ask for anything. I wouldn’t change anybody. I wouldn’t get bigger, change my players. Don’t care if we can’t shoot here, can’t post. I don’t care because we fight, and that’s all I can ask.”
The unquestioned best player in program history, McDonald could leave San Antonio with some regrets if she wanted to. She bricked four free throws in a one-point game and missed a last-second shot that would have been one of the greatest moments in March Madness history.
What she’ll remember most is how her team put itself in that position in the first place.
“Man, just a good group of ladies that I played with,” McDonald said, holding back tears. “We accomplished a lot that many didn’t think we could do. It was tough, but I’m very proud of my teammates. We have nothing to hang our heads for. We competed. We battled. We just lost to a very great team, an experienced team with talented players in all positions. ... We just got to look back at the positives, look how far we’ve come.”