SAN ANTONIO — Aari McDonald watched the video once, again, then again.
She turned to the people around her—teammates Sam Thomas and Cate Reese and head coach Adia Barnes—to confirm that they had picked up on what she had: “I didn’t see any red.”
The Arizona senior was correct. The NCAA’s official women’s basketball Twitter account had just released a Final Four hype video with … only three teams. The Wildcats’ red uniforms were conspicuously absent. (The NCAA later deleted the post after being called out.) For a team that has been crowded out by other, flashier narratives so far in this tournament, this was both par for the course, and an extra jolt of motivation.
“It was frustrating,” McDonald said. “I definitely took it as a sign of disrespect. But it is what it is … I mean, we’re not worried about that. We’re going to do our thing. And you’re definitely going to see that translate to the court.”
It’s not surprising that Arizona has had to claw for space on the national stage in this Final Four. There’s No. 1 overall seed Stanford, with its steady excellence on both ends of the floor, coached by the women's game’s all-time winningest coach in Tara VanDerveer. Next is perennial powerhouse UConn, led to a 13th consecutive Final Four by one of the best freshmen in history in Paige Bueckers, coached by the game’s second all-time winningest coach in Geno Auriemma. Then there’s South Carolina, which looks like it very well might be on its way to establishing itself as a similar sort of powerhouse, in its third Final Four in six years under Dawn Staley. And, finally, there is Arizona—here for the very first time.
But to dismiss their story as any less compelling would be a mistake. The program’s turnaround might as well have been ripped from Disney: Barnes, who played for the Wildcats in the ‘90s, returned to her alma mater five years ago to lead a team that hadn’t so much as qualified for the tournament in more than a decade. The beginning was tough. McDonald—now the team’s biggest star, its single-season scoring record-holder and the Pac-12 Player of the Year—came aboard from the University of Washington as a sophomore in 2017 and watched the Wildcats go 6–24 while she sat out due to transfer rules. Ever since, however, Arizona has been on a steady upward climb. In 2019, it won the WNIT. In 2020, it saw its best season yet, which would have been its first tournament berth under Barnes, cut short by COVID-19. And now, in 2021, Arizona has finally made it—not just to the tourney, but all the way to the Final Four, where it will face UConn.
“She’s a year ahead of me,” UConn’s Auriemma said of Barnes. “We went to the Final Four my sixth year at Connecticut. But they’ve shown that every year, they’re able to build on the year before, and without compromising who [Barnes] is and what kind of player she’s looking for and their style of play.”
That’s best highlighted by McDonald. The guard has shown both consistency—she’s scored in double figures in all 87 of her games over three seasons at Arizona—and steady improvement over the years. While her scoring garners most of the attention, she’s developed as a defender, too, and is projected as a first-round WNBA draft pick for next month. She’s shone more with each successive game in the tournament, dropping 31 points against No. 2 Texas A&M in the Sweet 16, and 33 against No. 4 Indiana in the Elite Eight.
“Aari—her mentality isn’t to not be ready for this moment,” Barnes said. “I think you can see that with her play. She’s raised her level of play in the tournament.”
UConn is, of course, a tough opponent. Arizona’s strength is its defense—rated sixth in the country by Her Hoop Stats—but it will have to contain one of the best offenses in the country here. McDonald is an explosive and talented guard, but so, too, is UConn’s Bueckers. (“We can’t trade buckets,” McDonald said with a laugh when asked about the match-up. “That’s gonna be dangerous.”) And UConn’s depth and balance means that there’s much, much, much more to contend with than Bueckers. To have a chance, Arizona will need to rely on its defensive ability in hopes of controlling the tempo and slowing down the game.
So Arizona knows that you probably don’t believe they can pull this off. But that’s just fine with them—after all, that’s been the line on them earlier in the tourney, and they’ve gotten this far, anyway.
“We’ve had that same chip on our shoulder from the beginning,” Barnes said. “Getting to the tournament wasn’t enough. Winning the first game wasn’t enough. Going to the Sweet 16, we weren’t satisfied, Elite Eight, we weren’t… We’re not satisfied. Even though we’re underdogs.”
Just don’t leave them off the hype video next time.