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College Basketball

Aari McDonald And Arizona Took Down The Giants

Aari McDonald #2 of the Arizona Wildcats celebrates after defeating the UConn Huskies during the third quarter in the Final Four semifinal game of the 2021 NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament at the Alamodome on April 02, 2021 in San Antonio, Texas. (
Photo: Elsa/Getty Images

The NCAA tweeted a short promotional video to advertise Friday night’s women’s tournament Final Four games. In the video were clips of three teams: UConn, South Carolina, and Stanford. The fourth, missing team was the No. 3 Arizona Wildcats, the longshots playing in the school’s first Final Four, who responded to this premature snub with a shocking “no, not so fast,” and took down a No. 1 UConn team favored by 13.5 points.

This game finally made a national star of Arizona’s Aari McDonald, the Pac-12 Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year. McDonald—her first name pronounced AIR-ee, as she had to remind reporters after her postgame press conference—has dazzled in relative obscurity all tournament, putting up back-to-back 30-point games in the last two rounds. The 5-foot-6 senior guard transferred to Arizona from Washington after her freshman year to follow her coach and former Wildcat Adia Barnes, who has now taken this Arizona program from a WNIT championship to the NCAA championship game in three seasons.

In her size, shotmaking and pesky confidence, McDonald recalled Morgan William, the small Mississippi State guard whose buzzer-beating pull-up jumper upset the Huskies in the Final Four in 2017. It helped that McDonald got exactly the contributions she needed from her teammates—scoring inside from Cate Reese, outside shots from Trinity Baptiste, and a fantastic all-around defensive effort, as they played like a group fully aware of the odds and determined to beat them. For some sense of Arizona’s we-had-nothing-to-lose mood, take this postgame scene: In a celebratory huddle with her team after the game, a jubilant Barnes appeared to yell “fuck everybody!” and throw double birds up. In one of the tournament’s more charming press conference clarifications, she said afterward, “I didn’t cuss the NCAA out. I did say a cuss word. It was, ‘Forget everybody if they don’t believe in us.’ We believe in us.”

McDonald described Arizona’s defense as “suffocating” and “stingy,” which is what it had to be to limit one of the most versatile offenses in the country. Arizona held UConn to a season-low 22 points through the first two quarters so that in the first half, the Huskies had more turnovers (nine) than field goals (eight). The usually efficient UConn frontcourt could get basically nothing going in the paint, where they usually dominate opponents.

When you’re missing two-thirds of your layups, when your great junior center doesn’t make a single field goal, when you’re fouling out on phantom calls, when Paige Bueckers can barely get a shot up: Maybe those are all signs you are not meant to win this one. UConn trailed the entire game, which Huskies guard Christyn Williams admitted came as a shock. “I think we came out with the wrong mentality. We thought it was going to be easy, I guess,” she said. It was the first time Connecticut has lost a tournament game by double digits since 2007.

It wouldn’t be a Geno Auriemma press conference without puzzling, theatrical digs at his own team, which has won all but 12 of its games in the last eight seasons. “I’ve said all along this year to those that have followed us all along, we have a very immature group,” he said after the loss to Arizona. “Not just young—I mean, we have a young group—but very immature group. When we’re high and when we’re on top of the world, we think everything’s great. When things don’t go our way, there’s a poutiness about us. There’s a feeling sorry for ourselves about us.” OK. Whatever. It’s to this UConn team’s credit that they played maybe the worst game they’ve played all season, and still felt, down five points with a little over a minute left, like a Bueckers bucket from winning it all.

But it was Arizona’s night, and that feeling finally began to overtake the other when the Wildcats’ Bendu Yeaney, a 52-percent free-throw shooter, hit both of them to get the lead back to seven. As punctuation on Arizona’s terrific defensive night, Yeaney stole the ball from UConn’s Nika Muhl with 10 seconds left and scored on the fast break, to seal a 69–59 win. It was as if to say to everyone watching in disbelief, “Yes, we’ve really won.”

Arizona will play No. 1 Stanford, a giant and fearsome team, for the national championship on Sunday night. But maybe that’s not so intimidating; the Wildcats are already giant-killers.