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Michelle Smith Pac-12 Women’s Basketball Feature: Arizona's Aari McDonald

Feb 12, 2021
Eric Evans /
Last spring, Aari McDonald’s life was full of decisions. She would say yes to a marriage proposal just moments after the Wildcats’ star guard played her final game of the Pac-12 Tournament in Las Vegas. Weeks later, she would decide that she would return to Arizona for one final season rather than enter the WNBA Draft, a choice that came following the heartbreaking cancellation of the NCAA Tournament, a place where the Wildcats hadn’t been in 15 years and where they were poised to make a long run.
Now, the decisions are made and what’s left for McDonald is the last chapter of the legacy she will leave behind in Tucson.
“It’s been a weird season, and it’s going by so fast,” McDonald said this week, as the Wildcats prepare for a homestand against the Washington schools, including a Washington State team that came back from a 16-point deficit in Pullman and came away with a buzzer-beating upset. The Wildcats (12-2, 10-2) will seek their atonement on Friday night.
“I love the way our team is playing right now,” McDonald said, the Wildcats having reeled off four straight wins and coming off Monday’s dominant and nationally-televised win over Oregon in Eugene. 
McDonald is having another All-American season, averaging 18.4 points a game, which is the lowest scoring average of her Wildcat career, but a testament to the talent that has been built around her since she arrived. She is also averaging a career-high 4.9 assists per game, with just 37 turnovers, a huge improvement over her previous two seasons in Arizona.
“She has been phenomenal, just blossoming,” said Arizona coach Adia Barnes. “She has worked on her game, she is a better player and a better leader.”
Being a vocal leader wasn’t always McDonald’s strength.
“In every way is a better leader,” Barnes said. “She’s not afraid to say the tough stuff and she’s embracing the hard stuff. One of the areas where I’ve really seen improvement is that she is bringing it every single day. Her level of competitiveness is 10-fold. She looks like somebody on a mission."
“She came back for a purpose and she’s locked in.”
McDonald, who is earning her Masters degree in Applied Behavior Analysis, said she didn’t know how this season would look as the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic became clear.
“I was asking myself ‘Are we going to play?’, and I was a little anxious about it, but I made my decision,” McDonald said. “I didn’t have any second thoughts about it at all. I think I made a great decision.”
And now she is starting to feel a little sentimental about what are, most assuredly, the final weeks of her collegiate career.
“It’s crazy that I’ve really been here for four years,” McDonald said. “I am feeling sentimental, but I’ll be fine. I’m good at putting things to the side and being all about business.”
The business of making the long NCAA Tournament run the Wildcats were denied a year ago.
“I’m going to let my game show and my teammates will follow,” McDonald said.
And when it’s all done, McDonald will have two things to look forward to, the WNBA Draft and…
“I really want to go wedding dress shopping.”