In a year that’s had no guarantees, with COVID protocols and plenty of new challenges, college basketball hasn’t exactly been a walk in the park. Positive tests plagued many teams, while others failed to live up to lofty expectations while taking on a new lifestyle.
In the midst of it all, though, a team has shined.
The Arizona women’s basketball team punched its ticket to the first Final Four in program history on Monday with a 66-53 victory over No. 4 seed Indiana in the Mercado Regional Final.
“I’m proud of just the whole team,” Wildcats coach Adia Barnes said. “We’ve worked hard. We’ve made a lot of sacrifices. This has been a year full of adversity.”
It’s not over yet. The Wildcats, seeded No. 3, take on top-seeded Connecticut Friday at the Alamodome in San Antonio. UConn clinched its 13th consecutive trip to the Final Four with a controversial 69-67 victory over Baylor Monday night.
A big reason for Arizona’s success this season has been senior guard Aari McDonald, who in the offseason passed up going pro and elected to return to Arizona for her senior year. McDonald said cutting down the nets on the way to the Final Four is the type of moment she came back to experience.
“I came back to make history,” McDonald said. “I also came back to sharpen my game. People said I can’t shoot. Now look what I’m doing. I’m making my teammates better as I’m actually getting better as a player, as a leader. It feels amazing.”
McDonald proved her shooting capabilities once again on Monday. She scored 33 points on 12-for-20 shooting and made five of her six attempts from beyond the arc. It was her fourth time scoring over 30 points this season, her second in a row.
McDonald also gathered 11 rebounds, making it her third double-double on the season. Her performances over the course of Arizona’s tournament run so far were enough to earn her the honor of Most Outstanding Player in the Mercado Regional.
“I think I’ve seen a different Aari in the tournament,” Barnes said. “Just more relaxed, more at ease, really leading the team in so many different ways, letting the game come to her. She’s been unstoppable. I mean, no one can guard her.”
Senior forward Trinity Baptiste also contributed her second double-double of the season with 12 points and 10 rebounds. Despite a quieter night, junior forward Cate Reese brought down four offensive rebounds, three of which resulted in second chance points.
Barnes said that the team’s run in the NCAA Tournament could mean a lot for the program in regard to recruiting nationally.
“I think our defense this year has been phenomenal,” Barnes said. “I think our style of play is fun. I think players want to play in an exciting style. We go do that. We don’t sit back in zones, play percentages. We get out and guard you. That’s the way I loved to play as a player.”
While the team will be sure to savor perhaps the biggest win in the program’s history, attention turns to a looming matchup with perennial power Connecticut, the champions of the River Walk Regional. Friday’s national semifinal marks the 13th consecutive Final Four appearance and 21st overall for the Huskies under coach Geno Auriemma.
Coincidentally, Barnes’ last game at Arizona as a player was a tournament matchup against UConn in the 1998 Sweet Sixteen, a 74-57 loss for the Wildcats.
Barnes will get another shot at the Huskies, this time as a coach. Despite the tall task, Barnes said she thinks her team is playing its best basketball.
“We’ve peaked at the right time,” Barnes said. “To win a championship, all it does is you have to beat that team one time. I feel like anybody this time of year can win one time on any given night.”
UConn is led by freshman sensation Paige Bueckers, a guard who has earned, among many other accolades, Associated Press First Team All-American and BIG EAST Player of the Year honors.
Going into Friday’s showdown for a spot in Sunday’s National Championship, McDonald said her teammates are finally starting to believe.
“We just need this confidence momentum going into UConn,” McDonald said. “UConn we already know what they’re about. Powerhouse, well-coached, skillful players. Hey, I got my chances with my teammates, ride or die, going to war with them.”
No matter what happens in the coming days, Barnes said her team is just having fun.
“We play with our hearts,” Barnes said. “It may not be pretty, and that’s okay. We’re going to give 100%. Whatever happens at the end of that, whether we win or lose, that’s what’s meant to be.”