Michelle Smith: Arizona creates history in securing program's first trip to the Final Four
Leaving a legacy, indeed.
In that moment on Monday night when senior guard Aari McDonald pulled off a strip, steal and layup at the other end of the floor to put Arizona up 66-53 with 34.1 seconds to go, Arizona Wildcats coach Adia Barnes tried so hard to talk to her team like it was any other late-game situation. The players gathered around and listened intently (while the celebration had already started in the stands), but collectively, they all looked as if they were about to burst.
And in the next moment, 34.1 basketball seconds later, when the final buzzer sounded, the Wildcats did just that, celebrating the program’s first-ever trip to the Final Four with hugs, tears, confetti, a dog pile and of course, brand new t-shirts that read “Made 4 It”.
McDonald scored 33 points (to go with 11 rebounds and four assists) in the first and only Regional Final appearance of her stellar career, her second straight 30-point game in the NCAA Tournament and her 91st game in double figures. None of the previous 90 mattered quite as much as this one.
Because remember, Arizona hadn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 2005, when most of these players were probably in preschool or kindergarten. And this program had never gone this far, advancing to the Sweet 16 back in 1998 when their leading scorer was none other than Barnes.
“It’s a surreal moment,” McDonald said after her team cut down the nets at the Alamodome. “You make goals, to see yourself and your team achieve them like this, it's crazy. I'm just so excited. This is a big deal. We created more history.”
Arizona's win guarantees that there will be a Pac-12 team in the Final Four for the 11th time in the last 13 tournaments since 2008. And they will be the sixth team to get there in that same span (also including Stanford, Cal, Oregon State, Washington and Oregon).
If No. 1 overall seed Stanford wins on Tuesday to secure a Final Four spot, there will be two Pac-12 teams in the field for the second time ever - the last time back in 2016 when both Oregon State and Washington earned spots in the national semifinals.
Adia Barnes was coaching as an assistant at Washington that season and would return home to coach at Arizona the next season. Over the next five years, she built and recruited, she rallied a fan base in Tucson behind her team, won a WNIT title in 2019 and tapped the smartest coaches she knew to help her create an identity for her program.
Barnes said after the game that if someone told her to start this season that her team would be playing Connecticut in the Final Four, she would have said, ‘Uh, ok, I don’t know about that.”
“It’s surreal. Like ‘Wow, we are going to the Final Four’, and I don’t think there was anyone in the country who would have thought that except the people in our locker room. I’m proud of Aari and proud of Sam (Thomas) and I’m proud of this whole team. They’ve worked hard. They’ve made a lot of sacrifices. COVID has been really hard for the student-athletes. It really has been. Being at the tournament, being in lockdown, making the best of it and having a good attitude, I’m just so proud of them. Words can’t describe it.”
No player has better represented Arizona’s rebirth more than McDonald, who is now officially down to her final playing days in an Arizona uniform. There will be time for sentimentality later. Right now, McDonald is flashing her mega-watt smile and proving to be the most entertaining one-on-one player in this tournament. She has scored 64 points in the last two games.
“When you know, you know you're feeling it,” McDonald said. “I knew I wasn't doing too well in the regular season, conference stuff. I was taking bad shots. But I'm letting the game come to me. My teammates are putting me in successful positions, the coaches are putting me in successful positions as well. I'm really just taking what the defense is giving me, honestly.”
Barnes said McDonald has been nothing short of unstoppable.
“To me, she has been amazing. Star players make big plays and step up when it really counts,” Barnes said. “She struggled at times this year and felt like she had to carry us so much. I’ve seen a different Aari in the tournament. She’s more relaxed and more at ease and she’s been unstoppable. No one can guard her. She's just been playing at another level. I'm just so proud of her because all her hard work is paying off. She's just been phenomenal and she's leading this team.”
The next task for McDonald and the Wildcats is a big one, facing No. 1 seeded Connecticut in the national semifinals on Friday night in the Alamodome. The Huskies know how to do this Final Four-thing. The Wildcats will be the underdog, but not an over-achiever.
“We need the momentum,” McDonald said. “We need it going into UConn. We know what they are about. They are a powerhouse.”
Both Arizona’s accomplishment and celebration on Monday night have been well-earned through half-a-decade of work and commitment.
McDonald and Barnes hugged when the game was over.
McDonald said Barnes said “Who would have thought?...We can go get this whole thing.”
The legacy, however, is already secure.