Sweet 16 and never been missed: UArizona women break out of anonymity, advance in NCAA Tournament

The Arizona women’s basketball team celebrates after a victory over BYU that advanced the Wildcats to the Sweet 16. (Photo courtesy Arizona Athletics)

On March 15, 1998, senior Adia Barnes scored 30 points in an NCAA Tournament game against Virginia to advance Arizona to its first Sweet 16 in school history.

Twenty-three years and only five NCAA Tournament appearances later, now-Coach Barnes and her Arizona women’s basketball team is headed back to the Sweet 16 for the second time after a 52-46 victory over Brigham Young on Wednesday.

In 2021, it’s another Arizona senior that’s leading the charge in March.

“It’s always McDonald time,” Barnes said.

Guard Aari McDonald scored 17 points and led a late Arizona run to survive against 11-seed BYU and advance to the second week of the tournament. McDonald capped it off with a steal and a fastbreak layup to seal the game with only a few seconds left.

“In the second half, I had to tell myself, ‘Hey, you’ve got to take it personal. (BYU’s Shaylee Gonzales) is not going to score on you. Don’t even let her touch the ball,’” McDonald said. “I really wanted the game. I knew my teammates did, and my coaches, so I had to buckle down and take pride.”

McDonald’s career at Arizona has included many accolades, including being named an Associated Press All-American three times and also this season’s Pac-12 Player and Defensive Player of the Year. She is the first Conference Player of the Year from UArizona since, you guessed it, Barnes in 1998.

Not only was Wednesday’s game a landmark win for the Arizona program, but it ensures McDonald’s college career will last at least a few more days.

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“This (win) in particular was special,” McDonald said. “Definitely didn’t want to end my season, didn’t want to go home, and so I just had to put the team on my back.”

Arizona headed into the fourth quarter tied at 37. At one point early in the quarter, the Wildcats trailed by four points and were in danger of being upset in a low-scoring defensive affair.

That wasn’t going to happen on McDonald’s watch.

Arizona went on a 13-3 run in the final 4:40 of the contest. McDonald scored nine points and snagged four rebounds in the fourth quarter.

“She showed up, got stops and made big plays when she needed to, and that’s what stars do,” Barnes said. “She stepped up at the right time when her team needed her and helped us find a way to win, and that’s what great players do.”

McDonald wasn’t the only player that helped move the Wildcats on in the tournament Wednesday, though. Forward Trinity Baptiste’s 11 rebounds were crucial for Arizona down the stretch before she fouled out with less than a minute left in the game. Forward Cate Reese also contributed 12 points and five rebounds.

Arizona enters uncharted waters as they head into the Sweet 16, with McDonald, Shaina Pellington and Bendu Yeaney being the only players on the team with tournament experience. McDonald is the only one of the three to have made it this far.

“As a team, this was all new to us,” Barnes said. “Being a higher seed, coming into the tournament with a target on our back. It’s hard. It’s hard to get wins because everybody’s so good, there’s so much parity in women’s basketball.”

The road will start to get tougher for the Wildcats in the next round. They will face No. 2 seed Texas A&M Saturday at 5 p.m. MST for the chance to play in the Mercado Regional Final. The Aggies escaped No. 7 seed Iowa State on a layup at the buzzer to win 84-82.

No matter what happens though, the Wildcats are just enjoying the ride.

“We are doing what we set out to do,” Barnes said. “We believed in each other and we believed in the process. It’s not about the end result, it’s about the process and all we’ve learned along the way, and just living in the moment. And we’ve done that.”

Sports Reporter, Phoenix

James Johnston expects to graduate in 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Johnston is working for Cronkite Sports this spring.