Michelle Smith: Wildcats lead wire-to-wire, bounce UConn to set up title game against Stanford
Stunning. And yet not. Unexpected. And yet not.
The Arizona Wildcats made history in so many different ways on Friday night it’s going to be hard to keep track.
But it comes down to this, on Friday night at the Alamodome in San Antonio, the first-timers taking down 11-time national champion Connecticut 69-59 in the national semifinals with a performance so impressive and so dominating that it didn’t truly feel like the upset that it was. And it sets up an historic moment for the Pac-12 Conference, with two teams - Arizona and Stanford facing off for the NCAA Women’s Basketball Championship.
It will mark the seventh time in NCAA history that two teams from the same conference play one another in the national title game and the first time for the Pac-12. The conference will be guaranteed a national champion for the first time since 1992.
The Wildcats took it to the Huskies - and national Player of the Year Paige Bueckers - with a stifling defense, leading from beginning to end, while star guard Aari McDonald continued to boost her legend and her WNBA stock.
The player who joked earlier this week that she’d go through her mother to get to the national championship has just one barrier left - and it’s pretty big one.
Arizona (21-5) will take on Pac-12 compatriot Stanford on Sunday for the national title in an all-conference final. The Wildcats have been beaten twice by the Cardinal this season by a combined margin of 41 points in two games. But none of that matters now, not with the way the Wildcats just showed out on national television.
McDonald, who came into the game with back-to-back 30-point performances, finished the game, using the slight of being left off a Final Four promo by the NCAA to fuel a dazzling performance of 26 points and six rebounds that made the Wildcats look like anything but a prohibitive underdog against the biggest women’s basketball brand name in the country.
Barnes said the video omission “didn’t matter.” But McDonald made it clear that it did and she relished her team’s role as underdog.
“We were the underdog. I mean, we kind of felt that way all season. That kind of boosts our confidence, makes us play harder that nobody thinks we can beat these top teams, just accomplish the things we've accomplished,” McDonald said. “They were tight. My teammates have been playing free this whole tournament. I mean, hey, we're made for it, like Coach says.”
The Wildcats also proved that they are not a one-player show. Arizona got 12 points from Sam Thomas, 11 points from Cate Reese and eight different players got on the scoreboard.
“My teammates, everybody has been perfecting their role,” McDonald said. “They've been coming up big. I mean, it's not a one-woman show. I mean, I have a great supporting cast. I believe in my teammates. Never have any doubt in them. I always boost them up.”
Arizona built a 14-point second half lead against Connecticut before the Huskies cut the margin to five points with 1:23 to go. The Wildcats held the Huskies nearly 20 percent below their season-average shooting percentage (35.7 percent), forced 12 turnovers and matched them 35-35 on the boards.
“We are confident in what we do,” said Arizona coach Adia Barnes said. “I felt like we controlled the tempo for three and a half quarters and we knew we’d take their punches, but we had to get some defensive stops. We had momentum and control most of the game.”
Barnes, in her first head coaching job, has taken a team that won six games four years ago, and a WNIT title just two years ago to the verge of a national championship in the program’s first tournament appearance since 2005. Barnes said the moment hadn’t settled in immediately after the game.
“What we did today, I think we shocked the country,” Barnes said. “I’ve been an underdog all my life. Too small for this, too inexperienced for that. We prove it wrong every time. I don’t care. It just motivates me and my team.”
The Wildcats, their coach said, were not afraid. And that was apparent in a game that Arizona clearly thought they could win from the tip.
“We did not have any pressure,” Barnes said. “It's a much easier situation to be us than it is UConn because I think the program is so good, you're expected to win, and that's hard.
“Forget everybody if they don't believe in us, because we believe in us. That is my team. I believe in them. I will run through a wall for them. I'm just so proud because they do whatever I ask. They believe. That's all I can ask for from the team.”
Or as McDonald put a fine point on it.
“Keep betting against my teammates and we are going to prove you wrong.”