SAN ANTONIO — Two days ago, Aari McDonald ran over the basics of what would make UConn such a formidable opponent for Arizona in the Final Four: a powerhouse, well-coached, with skillful players.
She then offered a counterpoint.
“But hey,” the senior guard said. “I got my chances with my teammates. Ride or die, I’m going to war with them.”
As it turned out, Arizona did not make beating Connecticut look like war. Instead, it came off as just a slight tussle. In the first women's Final Four in program history, the Wildcats never trailed, giving their storied opponent no room to breathe. They held a double-digit lead for most of the game and pushed the Huskies to their largest deficit of the season at 14 points. Even a brief UConn run midway through the fourth quarter couldn’t shrink the gap to fewer than five. In the end, Arizona cruised to its first spot in the national championship game, 69–59.
It was UConn’s first double-digit loss in the tournament since 2007—six national championships ago for the Huskies.
As McDonald had suggested on Wednesday, this statement victory took some significant contributions from her teammates: Sam Thomas scored 12, Cate Reese added 11, and Helena Pueyo had eight rebounds.
But the animating force was all McDonald. She drained a three on Arizona’s first possession of the game. (“Honestly, Coach Barnes hates when I take threes on the first possession. But, I mean, she’s not going to tell me to stop shooting when I’m feeling it from downtown.”) And she continued in the same vein from there. In what’s been a tournament full of electric performances from McDonald, this was her at her finest, making her presence felt seemingly everywhere at once. UConn had no response—double- or triple-teaming her to no avail.
She finished with 26 points, seven rebounds and two steals.
“She just dominated the entire game start to finish,” said UConn head coach Geno Auriemma. “We pride ourselves on being pretty good at certain things. We had no answer for her.”
The Huskies looked uncharacteristically disjointed almost from the start. They shot just 35.7% from the field—a far cry from their usual 51.1%. Paige Bueckers, their star freshman point guard, had three turnovers to four assists. Their leading scorer, Christyn Williams, fouled out with almost four minutes left to play. (Albeit on a disputed call in a game that featured several of those.) Some of this looked self-inflicted; Auriemma pointed to the youth of this team and a mindset that he labeled as “immature.” But that started with the tempo set by a frenetic, pressing defense from Arizona—which centered, like their offense, on McDonald.
“She’s a great defender,” said Wildcats head coach Adia Barnes. “She disrupts things, makes it difficult. She didn’t allow Paige to really get in the flow … Our team feeds off her. We built our defense around her quickness and her pressure.”
Its appearance in the title game will cap a fairytale rise for Arizona. When Barnes signed on to coach her alma mater in 2016, the program looked stuck, more than a decade removed from its last tournament appearance. When McDonald came aboard as a sophomore transfer in 2017, the team limped to a dismal record of 6–24 as she sat out. In the years since, however, the Wildcats have steadily improved, earning a WNIT championship in 2019 and pushing to an especially-promising season cut short by the pandemic in 2019–20. Now, they’re staring down a national championship.
“Man, it’s crazy,” McDonald reflected on Friday. “We never gave up. We kept faith. We kept working our tails off. We trust each other—would do anything for each other. You definitely see how we’re sticking to that.”
The night underscored one of the weirder NCAA flubs in a tournament that has had many of them. The Final Four hype video originally pushed out Thursday morning had only featured three teams: Arizona was conspicuously absent. The team had taken note of the fact that it had been given minimal presence in previous highlight clips—it barely showed up in the pregame reel for its Sweet 16 win over Texas A&M—but to have just three teams shown in the video for the Final Four? It was a sign of disrespect, McDonald said, and she’d come out on the floor Friday night to prove them wrong. But her coach took a more laid-back approach.
“We don’t care,” Barnes said with a grin. “We believe in each other, we believe in what we do, that’s just motivating. That’s something like—okay, show them, be on the next video.”
The Wildcats did, in fact, show them. But they don’t have to worry about the next video. Instead, they have a championship game to play.