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Arizona women’s basketball notebook: On Aari McDonald’s first big night in the WNBA, another honor for Adia Barnes and more

Atlanta Dream v Chicago Sky Photo by Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images

Not long ago, there was little reason to pay attention to Arizona women’s basketball in the offseason. While men’s basketball was a 24/7/365 news affair, the women were lucky to get attention when they were on the court. The changes that Adia Barnes has brought to Tucson mean that the interest in the women never stops.

What’s going on this week in the world of Wildcat women’s basketball?

The lid finally comes off the basket for Aari McDonald in the WNBA

Draft day is when all of your hopes and dreams seem at your fingertips. Then, comes the work and the occasional uncertainty of your rookie year. Aari McDonald has faced both the ups and the downs in the early going of her young career.

In the Atlanta Dream’s first two games, McDonald was effective on the defensive end, but she struggled to find her scoring groove. In two losses, she went 0-for-7 from the floor. In her first game, she picked up three quick fouls. In her second, she turned the ball over twice and only saw 11 minutes on the court.

Then came the third game. The Dream finally won, but McDonald didn’t see the court.

The questions went around. Was it a matter of an interim head coach who was giving into demands from veterans? Was McDonald having difficulty adjusting?

Then, Tuesday night came around. The Dream were set to face the Chicago Sky, a team that many expect to be in the championship conversation this year. It was their third game against a title contender this year and the other two had ended in losses. Would McDonald find herself on the bench for the entire game again?

The answer was a resounding, “No!” Not only did she get into the game, but McDonald had the best game of her young career while playing a season-high 17 minutes and helping her team to its second victory in a row as the Dream defeated the Sky 90-83.

McDonald ended the night with nine points on 3-for-8 shooting from the field and 2-for-3 from the line. She corralled one rebound and dished out five assists against just one turnover. So far this season, she has eight assists to three turnovers, cleaning up an aspect of the game that was sometimes an issue in college.

“Here’s the thing I love about Aari,” said Dream interim head coach Mike Petersen. “She cares about her teammates. She plays super hard, and she is fearless. Like, a lot of rookies would have been afraid to shoot some of those threes. She is fearless. She drives. Defensively fearless. And so, I was not surprised by what she did. I was happy. It was awesome for our team. And her teammates love her. I mean you can see our fans when she’s making plays and it looks like a party going on over there.”

Petersen noted that he never had any intention for her to sit out the entire game against the Indiana Fever, but the Dream “just got out of step a little bit” with their rotations because of the way the game progressed. Against Chicago, he planned those rotations and informed McDonald exactly when she would be entering the game based upon those plans.

“There were questions about why she didn’t play in Indy or something,” Petersen said. “There was nothing wrong, and I told her after the game. We talked, and I said you’re going to play. And we went into today with a very specific point in time when she was going to enter the game. She entered the game at that moment and was fantastic.”

McDonald was not fazed by any of it, especially after her night in Chicago. Prior to Tuesday, her only point had come via the free-throw line. Finally seeing the ball go through the hoop as a professional was still fresh on her mind after the victory.

“We set up the motion, kind of set up a screen on my defender, and I was ready,” she said. “Caught the ball in motion and I just knew it felt good when it left my hands.”

There’s no time to relax, though. She knows that she has things to learn and she’s counting on her team to help her get there.

“I’m really excited,” McDonald said. “I’m blessed. I’m happy to be surrounded by players and coaches that are pushing me to be the best version of myself and I’m doing that for them as well.”

Adia honored again

McDonald isn’t the only one who has been in a WNBA arena lately. On Friday, the Phoenix Mercury returned to the Phoenix Suns Arena for their home opener. Arizona’s head coach was a guest of honor.

The Mercury named Barnes their “Believe in Women” honoree during a break in the first half. A video of Barnes was played on the arena scoreboard and much of the Mercury fanbase rose to their feet to give her a standing ovation.

This year’s Fry's Food Stores BELIEVE IN WOMEN series tips off with a woman whose team took the NCAA by storm in 2021 – Arizona Women's Basketball Head Coach Adia Barnes. A former athlete and broadcaster, and current working mom, Barnes prides herself on the mentorship she provides off-court.

Posted by Phoenix Mercury on Friday, May 21, 2021

The future is bright

Back in Tucson, the concerns about the post-Aari world have faded more and more as Barnes and her staff have put together a roster that should keep Arizona competitive at the top of the Pac-12 for the next several years.

After adding three transfers, Barnes is now going head-to-head with Oregon’s Kelly Graves for the services of former USC point guard Endyia Rogers. Rogers will reportedly make her transfer decision public on June 1.

If Rogers does come to Arizona, she will eventually be playing alongside 2022 recruits Maya Nnaji and Kailyn Gilbert. Both players are still highly ranked by ESPN HoopGurlz, but their rankings dropped in the latest release that came out this week.

Nnaji went from No. 7 to No. 10. Gilbert took a bigger drop, going from No. 18 to No. 27.