April 3, 2021 

‘We knew we’d bear down and fight’: Arizona’s defense smothers UConn

Wildcats stun Huskies, 69-59, to advance to the national championship game

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Arizona Wildcats players celebrate their win over the Connecticut Huskies in the semifinals of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament at the Alamodome on April 2, 2021 in San Antonio, Texas. (Photo by Justin Tafoya via Getty Images)

In an upset no one saw coming except the Wildcats themselves, Arizona topped UConn last night in a 69-59 victory that advances them to the national championship game on Sunday.

The Wildcats have had a historic tournament run but have been doubted and snubbed throughout their dance. This worked in their favor, though, against a team as hyped and respected as the Huskies.

It helped the Wildcats loosen up in what otherwise would’ve been a very stressful matchup. They played their own game, highlighted by their lights-out defense.

Arizona came out with the pedal to the metal and didn’t let up once over 40 minutes. The Wildcats led the entire way and even handed UConn its biggest deficit all season (14 points) and held the Huskies to a season low in points.

Playing loose, playing free

The biggest key to Arizona’s win was its ability to play loose in this game. UConn is UConn. The Huskies are good (an understatement) and they’re respected, but they’re also young. They faced an enormous amount of pressure heading into this game.

On the other hand, Arizona has hardly been highlighted the whole tournament. The Wildcats came into this game with an underdog mentality and a primal hunger to win.

No one expected the Wildcats to win this game, or even to make it this deep at all. That was the secret sauce to their success Friday night.

“We did not have any pressure,” head coach Adia Barnes said after the game. “It’s a much easier situation to be us than it is to be UConn because I think the program is so good, you’re expected to win and that’s hard. For us, it’s a lot easier to play loose when there isn’t pressure, but I’m just happy we got hot at the right time during the tournament … I believe in [my team] and I would run through a wall for them.”

Christyn Williams #13 of the Connecticut Huskies controls the ball as Sam Thomas #14 of the Arizona Wildcats defends during the semifinals of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament at the Alamodome on April 2, 2021 in San Antonio, Texas. (Photo by Ben Solomon via Getty Images)

Even when it looked like UConn would make a comeback late in the game, the Wildcats stayed cool. They put their heads down and focused on getting to the finish line on their own terms.

“We knew we were going to take a couple of their punches down the stretch, but the maturity that my team showed — we never got rattled,” Arizona star Aari McDonald said after the game. “We just kept being more feisty on defense. We’ve got to value every possession, whether that’s defense or offense. We stuck with the game plan.”

Just call her Aarizona

This game elevated McDonald into the national spotlight in a way that she not only deserves, but should’ve had already.

She led her team with 26 points and her teammates fed off her energy, with Sam Thomas and Cate Reese also dropping double figures (12 and 11 points, respectively). By now, you know that McDonald’s skillset doesn’t stop there; it extends to both sides of the ball.

With seven rebounds and two steals, McDonald’s ever-present ferocity on defense is what lit the fire under Arizona and pushed the Wildcats to win this game.

Her defensive intensity shut UConn freshman phenom Paige Bueckers down and killed the Huskies’ momentum for long stretches.

Aari McDonald #2 of the Arizona Wildcats celebrates her team’s win over the Connecticut Huskies in the semifinals of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament at the Alamodome on April 2, 2021 in San Antonio, Texas. (Photo by Ben Solomon via Getty Images)

The most important thing about McDonald’s style of play is the way she is a catalyst for the rest of her teammates. Thomas had an impressive night with 12 points and five rebounds, and so many others also stepped up in their own way — from Trinity Baptiste with seven points and six rebounds before fouling out, to Helena Pueyo, who was a constant presence on the glass with eight rebounds.

In the end, Aari’s speed and double-edged playing style was too much for the young Huskies.

“She should have been the national Defensive Player of the Year,” Barnes said of McDonald. “I think there was no other player that impacts the game on both ends of the floor more … She disrupts things; she makes it difficult. She didn’t allow Paige to really get in a flow … Our team feeds off her, and then we built our defense around her quickness and her pressure.”

McDonald looked very loose and relaxed throughout the Final Four game. She was smiling, she was having fun, she was balling.

That energy will be crucial in Sunday’s game against Stanford, a team that has looked somewhat tight lately despite pulling off the wins.

Underdog mentality for the Cats

It’s no secret Arizona got snubbed in the NCAA’s promotional video for the Final Four. The team was invited to the same photoshoot the other three teams were but was left out of the final footage.

Of course, this would lead any group of fiery and hungry college athletes to play with a vengeance and a chip on their shoulder. And that’s exactly what we saw last night.

“It wasn’t cool at all,” said McDonald. “It was definitely one of our motivations coming in, like, okay, y’all think it’s the Final Three? Okay, we’re going to show you all. So we shocked the world tonight. Keep betting against my teammates and I—we’re going to prove you wrong.”

And it wasn’t just this promo video. There hasn’t been much buzz around the Wildcats the entire tournament, from not being mentioned when people were talking about the talent in their region (Mercado), to barely being shown in the highlight video prior to their game against Texas A&M.

Honestly, I’m even surprised there hasn’t been more praise for Aari McDonald throughout this tournament. As I said in my Final Four preview, this matchup between McDonald and Bueckers should’ve been just as hyped up as the one between Bueckers and Iowa’s Caitlin Clark.

Obviously, it wasn’t, but that didn’t stop McDonald from showing out on the court and proving why people should be paying attention to the Wildcats.

“We were the underdog; we felt that way all season,” McDonald said. “That kind of boosts our confidence and makes us play harder when nobody thinks we can beat these top teams or even just accomplish the things we’ve accomplished … My teammates have been playing free this whole tournament. We’re made for it.”

And their head coach is made for it, too. Being an underdog has defined Barnes’ life in basketball. She has been doubted and has said that people even questioned her decision to take the job at Arizona at all, since it was such a lacking program when she arrived five years ago.

But Barnes had a different perspective. Instead of seeing the team as a losing battle, she saw it as an opportunity to grow something special. And just look at what she’s been able to accomplish: A WNIT championship in 2019. A trip to the national championship game this year. She’s built a well-rounded and talented squad. And on top of all that, her players adore her.

“It doesn’t matter; it just motivates us and I love it,” Barnes said. “I’ve been an underdog all my life. I’ve been too small to do this, too this to do that, too inexperienced to do this — and we prove it wrong every time. So I don’t care. It just motivates me and my team.”

Arizona will look to carry that extra motivation into its matchup against No. 1 Stanford on Sunday for the national title.

Written by Sydney Olmstead

Pac-12 and Las Vegas Aces reporter.

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