Ten years ago, the Texas A&M Aggies made it to the promised land with an NCAA Championship. That year, Arizona thought it might get to the tournament, but they landed in the WNIT during the best season of Niya Butts’ tenure. They were dismissed by the Utah State Aggies in the first round of the consolation tournament.
A decade makes all the difference, as Arizona dismissed these Aggies 74-59 with suffocating defense and some of the best offense of the season to reach its first Elite Eight in program history.
After questions about their offensive prowess—criticisms that head coach Adia Barnes called “quite irritating”—the Wildcats showed that they could find considerable offensive success in their defense-first system.
“Anything someone says about our team, we take it personal,” senior star Aari McDonald said. “We show them literally the next game.”
It was a time of celebration for those currently in the program and those who came before. LaBrittney Jones, who was a senior on Barnes’ first Arizona team in 2016-17, was there to cheer on a team doing things that she never got to experience. It was part of a bigger goal that goes even beyond advancing in this tournament.
“It means a lot,” Barnes said. “LaBrittney drove here.... My goal at Arizona is to make it a player’s program, just like on the men’s side. I watched when I was assistant coach at Washington when Lorenzo Romar had all the former NBA players. How they worked out at Washington, and how he just embraced that. He would have pickup games and he would use NBA players to mentor his players. So I am doing that at Arizona, creating a bond that I didn’t have when I first graduated. I really wasn’t in touch with Arizona. So it’s my goal to bring these former players back to touch our team. If they’re playing overseas I want them to work out in our facilities. That’s what I’m creating and that’s important to me. I want it to be like that. I want them to want to come back. I want them to meet us on the road. If there’s some abroad, I want them to come talk to our kids. If there’s an alumna and it’s a doctor, former player, I want her to inspire the next doctors on my team.”
The Wildcats had a season-high 13 3-pointers, led by McDonald with a career-high six long-distance hits. She ended the night with 31 points on 12-for-21 shooting and hit 50 percent of her 3-pointers.
“I wasn’t surprised I was scoring,” McDonald said. “I’m confident in my abilities and once I get going, I’m hard to stop. I think I’m hard to stop as it is and I’m not being cocky at all, but I’m just confident in what I can do.”
Arizona forced the Aggies into 19 turnovers and scored 28 points off of them. On the other end of the court, the Wildcats took care of the ball, turning it over just eight times.
McDonald was the only Wildcat to score in double digits, but several others got close. Sam Thomas had 9 points, 4 assists, 5 steals and 2 blocks. Cate Reese had 8 points, 9 rebounds, 2 assists and a steal. Trinity Baptiste and Bendu Yeaney each scored seven points, Shaina Pellington had six and Helena Pueyo had five.
Pellington might have had her best night as a Wildcat, playing under control and allowing McDonald to move off the ball at times. She had three assists and only one turnover while going 2 for 4 from the field.
“Shaina is also really good at going downhill,” Barnes said. “I think Shaina and Aari were a terrific combination today and very, very hard to guard. And then when you have Sam hitting shots and making big plays, stretching the defense. They were tough.”
The team was very efficient on the offensive end, shooting 45.9 percent from the field and 44.8 percent from 3-point distance. The only shooting difficulties came at the free throw line where they hit just 5 of 12.
Texas A&M shot 47.1 percent, but hit just 25 percent of their shots from beyond the arc. They also got just two points off Arizona’s eight turnovers.
Yeaney will face her former team as the Indiana Hoosiers also advanced to their first Elite Eight by defeating No. 1 seed N.C. State.
“The sky’s the limit right now,” McDonald said. “Like Coach said, we’re here for the long haul. We did not want to go home, so it’s do-or-die and we want to get to the championship game.”