SAN ANTONIO – Everyone knew who would get the ball into final possession, and there was only one game left to win the 2021 NCAA women’s basketball championship.
The only question that hung in the air in the Alamodom was whether Arizona Guard Aari McDonald would actually take the shot. With Stanford Before 54:53, the fans in the dome were all waiting. A man in Arizona red turned to a nearby police officer and said, “Look out, they’re going to get Aari the ball off a screen.”
When Arizona guard Shaina Pellington came in 6.1 seconds ahead of the ball with a national championship shot on the line, the Stanford defense was ready and immediately denied the Wildcats on the screen they had set.
Eventually Pellington got her window on McDonald, but the timing was wrong and the ball went off. Still, even though Stanford’s Anna Wilson suffocated her, McDonald caught it. McDonald trickled forward, looking for an opening. But Lexie Hull and Cameron Brink joined in, a formidable 3-on-1 front that forced McDonald to back off and turn to shoot with 1 second left.
Miraculously, she looked decent enough. McDonald fell backwards after releasing the ball, but her eyes stayed up. Everyone held their breath. “It was the longest second,” said Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer.
“I just thought, ‘Oh please God, don’t go in,” said Stanford security guard Haley Jones. “You never know. She takes some wild shots because she’s so great.”
“I took a hard-fought shot and it didn’t fall,” McDonald said afterwards, holding back tears. “I remember that.”
The shot hit the back of the rim and Stanford won his first national championship in 29 years. Arizona, which played in the first national championship game in school history, had the ultimate what-if. McDonald was on his back after the last buzzer sounded before Pellington came over to pick her up.
Stanford’s defense held on to final possession when Aari McDonald missed the game-winning shot and the Cardinal escaped with a 54:53 win.
The next person there was Arizona trainer Adia Barnes, who put her arm around McDonald and squeezed hard. When Barnes called the rest of her team, McDonald bowed his head, bit his lip, and leaned over with his hands on his knees as their teammates walked over.
This was it for her after such a remarkable NCAA tournament run. Stanford pestered her all night, but she still carried her team to the end – willingly the Wildcats back when it was found that all hope was lost several times during the game.
Barnes made sure McDonald got the last shot.
“It would be Aari or nothing,” said Barnes. “I knew it was going to be doubled, but running a screen was the best option. We knew it would intercept it on the 3-point line. That’s exactly what happened. But they did really well to us refusing after the screen. They forced us to catch the ball really high. When Aari went to drive, there was a lot of time. We work in practice in special situations on the fact that she was pretty three times together and couldn’t go downhill.
“At that point we were on Aari’s back for the whole tournament. She has to take that shot. In this situation I have to put the ball in her hands because she’s one of the reasons we’re here.”
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What made Arizona’s unexpected tournament run so fun was the joy and fearlessness that McDonald brought to every game. She scored 20 or more points in every game except one – in the second round against BYU.
When Arizona needed her most, she got through – with 31 points in the first surprise, the Wildcats pulled the first seed in the tournament against Texas A&M in the Sweet 16 and then 26 in the breathtaking Final Four win over UConn.
All eyes would be on her to get into the championship game. Stanford, attending the same conference, had done an excellent job on the defensive in the previous two encounters, bringing them to a combined 11-of-43 win in the first two encounters. Wilson got another call at McDonald, and the game plan appeared – early on, at least – to be aimed at preventing them from going left.
The strategy worked when McDonald shot shot after shot and missed more than during this run of the tournament. At halftime she was 2 of 11 with five points and 1 of 9 in competitive shots.
“With Anna Wilson on me, they jump on anything that makes things difficult for me,” said McDonald. “I would pretty much say it was the same [as the first two meetings]. Only more physical this time. “
VanDerveer said physicality was part of the mentality their entire team should bring into the game, noting how physical Stanford’s games against Louisville and South Carolina were during the tournament. To win, she told the cardinal, they would have to be grainier and more physical.
“You never gave [McDonald] Room, “said Barnes.” She just maneuvered and found ways to go downhill. But many bodies in color. Every time she went downhill there were posts in the paint or in the Weakside Help. [It’s] Very difficult when we are halfway up because Aari pays a lot of attention. They forced her to hit hard.
“The reality is that in the last couple of games she’s taken these hard hits. We took a lot of fast hits that were hard, a lot of off-balance hits, but they just didn’t fall. Very hard to shoot 29% and win a national championship game. We had a few more shots to drop. “
Despite straying from her game, McDonald kept going and eventually helped Arizona get back into the game after trailing 9 points by 7:30 minutes. She hit a pull-up 3 to close the gap to five. Then another 3 with 3:35 closed the gap to 1. With this 3-pointer McDonald connected the NCAA record for the most 3-pointers in a tournament with 22.
Arizona walked down the track to her and fouled the following possessions – she hit 3 of 4 free throws to close the gap to 54-53 and left 36.6 seconds. When Stanford failed to take a shot in his final possession, the stage was set for McDonald’s.
But she just couldn’t get the shot into play. McDonald finished the 5-of-21 with 22 points. Four of these field targets were 3-pointers. After Barnes found McDonald on the floor with Stanford partying around her, she told her star player to lift her head, that she trusted her with the game on the line, and that the Wildcats should be proud of how much they achieved .
“We get out of here with a lot of pride,” said McDonald. “We have nothing to hang our heads in. We competed. We fought. We just lost to a very great team, an experienced team with talented players in all positions. They are led by a pioneer of the game. We only look at the positives. Look how far we’ve come. “