SAN ANTONIO – Aari McDonald's small shoulders carried Arizona through a rebuilding project to the brink of a national championship.
Then the wild ride out of the desert ended on a last-second shot that bounced helplessly, and heartlessly, off the rim in Texas.
McDonald's desperate attempt couldn't carry the Wildcats to the title, but the program that has been routinely overlooked and was on the bottom of the Pac-12 just four years ago fought perennial power Stanford to the end. And despite the 54-53 loss, Arizona has served notice the program is a new power out West and one to be reckoned with nationally going forward.
“We want to come back here,” Wildcats coach Adia Barnes said.
McDonald and the Wildcats nearly snatched the title from the overall No. 1 seed in the women's NCAA Tournament with a late defensive flurry that rallied them from nine points down in the final quarter. But what began as a difficult night for McDonald — 2 of 11 shooting in the first quarter — ended in the player slumped at midcourt after she launched a desperate 3-pointer over three defenders that bounced off the rim as the buzzer sounded.
“I got denied hard, I tried to turn the corner, they sent three at me .... It didn’t fall, that’s what I remember,” McDonald said.
McDonald had been the the most dynamic scorer of the tournament until Sunday night when her early shots wouldn't fall, her spinning drives wouldn't move defenders, and the biggest stage of her career turned into solo act of frustration for nearly 35 minutes of play.
Still, the Wildcats almost did enough to nearly beat a team that has handled them easily twice during the regular season. McDonald made two 3-pointers in the fourth quarter and her three free throws in the final minute gave the Wildcats a last chance to win when Arizona forced a shot clock turnover with six seconds to play.
“They just built on their confidence, just built and built and built throughout the tournament,” Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said. “The fact that we (had) beaten them twice and, quite honestly, in Arizona we beat them very badly. A real credit to their team and staff. They played great.”
McDonald will choose to remember that fight to the end instead of how it ended.
“We always fought. this is a good group of ladies that I played with,” McDonald said. “What I’ll remember most is this ride. We had a great run in the NCAA Tournament."
The loss ended a special season for the Wildcats.
A rebuilding project with Barnes at the helm and McDonald on the floor had the Wildcats climb to second in the Pac-12 behind Stanford. Barnes acknowledged during the Wildcats’ tournament run that she was uneasy about taking her first head-coaching job at her alma mater. She was worried that if it didn’t work out, she might not get another chance at a major program.
That’s understandable considering Arizona was living in the Pac-12 basement before makings its steady climb out once McDonald, a transfer from Washington, started playing in 2018-2019.
Arizona (21-6) made it to its first tournament since 2005, it's first Sweet 16 since Barnes was a Wildcats point guard in 1998, and beat fabled UConn in the national semifinals to reach the championship game.
“We fought. We weren’t the best team tin the tournament. No one thought we would be here,” said Barnes, the fourth Black female to lead her team to the national title game. “We came within a basket of winning a national championship. My heart is broken but I can’t ask for anything more of this team.”
Barnes will have some work to do to get back here. The Wildcats will lose McDonald and two other senior starters. But the lineup can be quickly rebuilt around junior forward Cate Reese, guard Shaina Pellington, who had a breakout game with 15 point and three steals against Stanford, and an incoming recruiting class that ranks among the top 15 in the country.
“This should motivate this team coming in next year, just looking at what we did,” McDonald said. “This should make them hungry.”
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