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Michelle Smith: Just the beginning for Arizona women's basketball

Apr 4, 2021
Simon Asher / Arizona Athletics

The tears from Adia Barnes and Aari McDonald were about disappointment, but also accomplishment. They were about an ending of something, but also a beginning of something else. 

The gutty, gritty program that no one saw playing until the last day of the season much less the final seconds, Arizona walks away from the 2020-21 NCAA Tournament as the national runner-up following a 54-53 loss to Stanford at the Alamodome on Easter Sunday evening. McDonald’s last shot attempt, contested by three Stanford defenders, didn’t fall. And the Wildcats dream of winning a national title in its first ever trip to the championship game didn’t happen.

“It’s not about how you start, it’s how you finish,” McDonald said. “Although we didn’t get the outcome we wanted, I’m proud of my teammates. I mean, this should motivate them coming in next year..the sky’s the limit. We are leaving San Antonio with a lot of pride.”

Barnes, like McDonald, was emotional after a hard-fought game in which her team came up just short against the Cardinal, who won a title for the first time since 1992.

“This team is so special,” said Arizona coach Adia Barnes. “I am so proud. We fought. We weren't the best team in the tournament. No one thought we'd be here. We believed in each other. We didn't play a great game, but we battled. We played our hearts out. We came within one possession.”

There was indeed so much to be proud of. The fearless play of McDonald throughout the tournament, which will cement her as the greatest player in program history and likely do wonders for her stock in next week’s WNBA Draft. The defense that disrupted the country’s most potent offensive teams and left them scrambling. The resilience that it took on Sunday to keep coming at Stanford despite being out-rebounded, out-shot and outmatched in the paint.

At multiple points in the game, Arizona, behind a swarming defensive effort, had to rally back after Stanford appeared on the verge of taking control for good, at one point building an 11-point lead. Arizona closed the game on a 10-3 run to get the opportunity to win a title on the final shot.

McDonald, who scored 22 points in her final college game, closes out a remarkable career at Arizona, changing the trajectory of the program.

“What I’ll remember (about my team) is how strong they are,” McDonald said. “No matter what the situation, adversity, myself and my teammates, we always fought. I’ll remember most, this ride. I mean we had a great run in the NCAA Tournament. We accomplished a lot that many didn’t think we could do. It was tough.”

Barnes called McDonald “phenomenal.”

“I’m proud that I coached her. I’m proud that she chose me twice. I’m proud that she came to Arizona to do something special when we weren’t good. We were probably 300-something RPI. For her to come here and come back when she could have gone pro, then to lead us to the national championship and be one shot away from winning it all, I mean, she's amazing.”

And while McDonald will now move on to her professional career, Barnes will look to build upon this incredible moment and set her program on a path to returning to this place with returners such as Cate Reese, Bendu Yeaney and Shaina Pellington. But for a little while longer, it’s going to sting.

“I'm not ashamed. Like, we made it to the championship game. We came within a basket of winning a national championship. So I'm proud. It's hard. It does hurt. Like my heart's broken. But I can't ask for anything more of this team. 

“They did everything I asked.”