From the first possession of the ball on Friday night, Arizona’s national semi-final game against Connecticut was a slow, dragging basketball exercise with many misses and long, arduous possessions. It was exactly what Arizona wanted.
The wildcats immediately determined their strategy: suffocating defense with the steals to be shown, energetic rebound and many 3-point shots. They harassed the possession of Huskies No. 1 after the ball possession and collected a few fouls more than optimal, but ultimately throttled their strongly favored opponent from start to finish to get a 69:59 win and their first trip to the basketball title game of the Secure NCAA women.
“We shocked the world tonight,” said Aari McDonald, a senior whose game-high 26 points seemed to come just as the third seed Wildcats needed them most. “Keep betting against me and my teammates, we will prove you wrong.”
Arizona, number 3, will face Stanford in the finals on Sunday after UConn, the most dominant program in the tournament’s history, and its announced newcomer Paige Bueckers derailed.
Instead, McDonald took the stage, scoring two 3-point shots in the first quarter when the team scored 6 of 13 to 3-point punches in the first half.
“The first five minutes of the game are crucial,” said McDonald. “Coach Barnes hates it when I take 3 seconds off my first possession, but I felt it.”
Arizona coach Adia Barnes had spoken about the importance of not being intimidated by the UConn story.
“To win a championship, you only have to beat the team once,” she told reporters after her program reached first place in the Final Four.
The Wildcats had a 32-22 lead at halftime after Connecticut hit the lowest half of the season.
The Huskies seemed to be close for most of the second half without actually triggering a significant comeback. Most of his efforts were led by junior Christyn Williams, who had 12 points in the first half and led the Huskies with 20 points. But Arizona never really let up, and Williams messed up with less than five minutes of playing time.
“I think we came out with the wrong mentality,” said Williams. “We thought it was going to be easy, I think, and we got nervous.”
Whenever the huskies looked like they had a chance to take control, McDonald’s hit an unmistakable circus shot – like the one she took with Evina Westbrook’s hand right in front of her face in the second quarter.
April 2, 2021 at 11:36 p.m. ET
“I don’t think we had to play as well against a guard as she did and she proved it tonight,” said Connecticut manager Geno Auriemma after the game. “We didn’t have an answer for her.”
Whenever Connecticut was on the offensive, the Wildcats would sing “D up!” over and over. Guards Shaina Pellington and Bendu Yeaney neutralized Bückers and allowed the guard, who normally scores 20 points per game, only one field goal in the first half. Bueckers, who shot an average of 52.4 percent, ended the night with 18 points and shot 38.4 percent, with eight of their 13 shots missing.
At the end of the first half, McDonald ran off the clock with the confidence of someone who had already won the game and waited for the last few seconds to pass so she could try to press a 3-pointer on the buzzer (she it lost).
Connecticut beat Arizona in the third quarter but wasn’t enough to get out of the 10-point hole they started in.
The teams exchanged steals and sales and continued their chaotic, physical game. Arizona kept the huskies at a distance and meticulously emptied the clock every time they had the ball.
At one point, Wildcats guard met Helena Pueyo with tricky footwork to bring Connecticut’s deficit to 14 – the biggest of the season’s huskies. Auriemma immediately called for a break and Wildcat fans were euphoric.
Arizona’s lead gradually began to shrink in the fourth quarter when the Wildcats’ shots weren’t as light as they were at the start of the game. Seven minutes before the end of the game, McDonald hit a fadeaway jumper, which gave Arizona another breath.
This cycle would repeat itself. After 4 minutes and 23 seconds, the Wildcats were up 9 points – a lead that seemed fragile as the team had only hit two of their 10 previous shots and more and more Arizona players were getting into nasty trouble. Barnes took time out.
The Wildcats immediately fouled Williams and she both made free throws. But McDonald stormed again through the traffic that would have been impenetrable to everyone else and landed on the basket, fought for the bucket by contact and a 3-point game – and knocked Williams out of the game with her fifth foul. (Video reruns seemed to show she hadn’t touched McDonald in the play.)
The clock continued and two minutes before the end Bueckers hit their fourth field goal to reduce the gap to 7 points. Then it dropped to 6 and with a minute to go, only 5 points separated the Huskies from their fourth consecutive defeat at the Final Four. Connecticut started tarnishing Arizona early, but the Wildcats hit five of their eight free throws in the last minute of the game, and that was enough to seal the win.
“I’ve been saying all year long that we have a very immature group,” said Auriemma. “We have to grow up if we want to be here again in the future.”
Barnes didn’t seem entirely to agree with this assessment.
“Would I want to play UConn in a seven-game series?” She said. “Absolutely not.”
Now her team is facing a member of the Pac-12, a Stanford team that has defeated the Wildcats twice this season.
But after beating Connecticut, Arizona doesn’t seem intimidated by any opponent.
“We were the underdogs,” said McDonald. “It makes us tougher, everyone thinks we can’t beat these top teams. We are made for it, as Coach says. “