At its core, basketball is a game of runs and mistakes. For the entirety of the first half of the National Collegiate Basketball Association (NCAA) Women’s Championship, the Stanford Cardinal and Arizona Wildcats proved just that.
Stanford was off to a hot start, beginning the game on a 14-3 run behind big shots from junior guard Lexi Hull and key offensive boards, put backs and finishes from reserve forward Ashten Pretchel. The Cardinal was well-prepared to stop Aari McDonald, the fiery point guard who has averaged 30 points per game over the course of the Sweet Sixteen. As McDonald drove to her strong side, the Stanford defense collapsed when McDonald entered what they coined “Aari’s house,” the left half of the paint. 6’4” freshman Cameron Brink met her there with force, as well as lengthy help defenders, forcing McDonald to either take a tough shot, or pitch out to her perimeter teammates.
Arizona was able to answer back with a 12-2 run, spearheaded by backup point guard Shaina Pellington. The Standford Cardinal played off Pellington—a junior transfer who joined the Wildcats after playing two seasons at the University of Oklahoma for the recently retired hall-of-famer Sherri Coale—daring her to shoot and score as McDonald was struggling to finish through traffic. Pellington was able to do so, firing the team up with a string of defensive stops that led to wide-open layups.
Stanford closed the first half with another 11-3 run, leaving the Wildcats with a seven-point deficit to climb out of in the second. After shooting just 2-11 from the field, McDonald said she hoped to play more loose and “let the game come to me,” during her halftime interview.
Arizona has played behind McDonald’s motor all tournament, as she is responsible for 37 percent of their total scoring. But in addition to her offensive prowess, McDonald has been the leader this Wildcat team has followed over the course of this season and beyond.
Her talent and toughness is nothing new; McDonald has an impressive resume as a three-time All-Pac-12, three time Pac-12 All-Defense, Arizona’s single-season scoring record holder, and multiple time All-American. In a piece released in the New York Times after defeating the top-seeded University of Connecticut (UConn) Huskies in the semi-final, McDonald commented, “The world is finally noticing what I can do.”
The lefty is crafty, has a quick release and can score from just about anywhere on the floor. But it is her heart, spirit and relentless energy on the defensive end of the court that Arizona feeds off of. The entire Wildcat team has embodied the mantra that “defense leads to offense,” which is what sparked their third quarter run and put them within three to start the fourth. Through the first three quarters, Arizona forced 17 turnovers against the Cardinal to keep themselves in the game.
Aari McDonald was able to find some rhythm at the beginning of the fourth quarter, hitting a deep three off of a flat screen at the top of the key from freshman forward Lauren Ware. Shaina Pellington continued to fuel the fire while McDonald was so well-defended by Stanford, using a quick hesitation move to stun her defender and finish with an and-one on the left side, making it a four point game midway through the fourth. McDonald was then able to come through when her team needed it most, hitting another three pointer to put the Wildcats within one.
Cardinal Haley Jones responded with a three-point play on the other end. After two potential missed calls by officials, McDonald came up with a steal at the end of the shot clock, hitting one of two free throws after the foul to make it a one-possession game. Pellington’s unwavering pressure led to yet another steal for the Cats, passing the ball up to McDonald who converted for another two at the stripe.
Stanford then fell to a shot-clock violation, giving the Wildcats a final chance to win—possession of the ball and just 5.5 seconds left on the clock. Barnes drew up an inbounds play that looked for McDonald, who was triple-teamed, and ultimately forced a long three that bounced off the back of the rim.
Stanford was able to seal their first National Championship since 1992, third in school history, while Arizona looked for their first win in program history.
Despite a tough showing from Stanford, the Arizona Wildcats are nothing short of a premier caliber team. From Aari McDonald’s confidence and resolve, to Sam Thomas’s groundedness, Shaina Pellington’s perseverance, and Adia Barnes’ intellect and savvy, Arizona captured the hearts of women’s basketball fans who might not have expected them to come this far.
They weren’t supposed to be there. They don’t have the history of powerhouse opponents like UConn, South Carolina or Stanford. This was the Wildcats’ first NCAA tournament berth since 2005. They have never won a National Championship. Even at the beginning of this season, Adia Barnes and her team have admitted that they never thought they would make it to this point. The NCAA even left Arizona footage out of the Final Four promo video they premiered throughout that stage of the tournament. But yet, here they were, silencing the non-believers, and making a name for themselves, their program, and all of the young women who will put on an Arizona jersey in the future.
In an article from ESPN written before the game, Barnes said, “The team I see is a reflection of me. I was scrappy. I wasn’t afraid. I was tough, physical. I was always undersized and always had a chip on my shoulder. I hope they get that from me, because I take pride in that.”
While McDonald leaves the program as the projected eighth pick in the WNBA mock draft, she does so with much inspiration from her coach, who seems able to balance doing it all: being a mother, head coach, wife, mentor and role model for all of those who cross her path. “To see what she’s doing, on this platform,” said McDonald to ESPN, “she’s creating opportunities for mothers, for Black women all around the country. It’s very inspiring. She’s an amazing person to be around.” Despite falling short on the court, it is these relationships, lessons, and examples that make the game worthwhile. After their run in this year’s tournament, Arizona Women’s Basketball is a program and a name to remember.