Aari McDonald paused when asked if Sunday’s 75-53 win over Washington was her last game at McKale Center, what will she take from her experiences with the program.
“I would say to not think about the bad, but when you do, just always take the positive and just grow from the experiences that you go through,” the senior All-American guard said. “Always have faith, honestly.
“Coming here, we were at the bottom of the pack. I mean, to see our growth to where we are right now, it’s crazy to me.”
No. 10 Arizona (14-2, 12-2 Pac-12) is challenging No. 5 Stanford (18-2, 15-2) for the conference title.
The Wildcats have been ranked in the AP Top 25 Poll for 29 straight weeks, the longest stretch in school history. They have been ranked in the top 10 this season 11 times in 12 polls.
When McDonald transferred from Washington in 2017-18 and sat out that season, Sam Thomas was a freshman on Adia Barnes’ second team that went 6-24 overall and 2-14 in the Pac-12. The Wildcats lost 11 of their last 12 games and were routed by Arizona State 76-47 in the opening round of the Pac-12 tournament.
“Aari took a leap of faith and chose us,” said Barnes, who recruited McDonald to Washington before becoming Arizona’s coach in 2016. “We’ve done a lot of special things together. I love her. I’ve known her since she was a sophomore in high school.
“Sam is also close to my heart. She’s someone who came here when we were bad. We were like 300 RPI when Sam came here. She could have gone to Michigan and other schools. She chose us when she did not know what Arizona was going to be like.”
McDonald, Thomas and Baptiste can opt to stay at Arizona for the 2021-22 season because the NCAA allowed seniors to return due to COVID-19 affecting scheduling this season.
Barnes said she will try to recruit all three to return, but said, “I don’t think I’ll be three for three. I’ll be two for three or one for three. I’m pretty confident in that, knock on wood.”
McDonald, a Wooden and Naismith award candidate for national player of the year, will likely enter the WNBA draft following this season after foregoing that possibility after last season. She is projected by ESPN to be a top 3 draft pick.
Thomas and Baptiste have the highest possibility of returning, with neither forecast by ESPN to go in the first round, although Thomas “is the most underrated defender in the nation,” Barnes said.
When Thomas was asked about what it would take for her to be recruited to the program for one more year, she said with a laugh, “That’s a good question. Maybe tell (Barnes) to tell COVID to go away, that might help me a lot.”
“I think, shoot, I don’t even know, just maybe how she got me here from out of high school. I already know what the program entails. I guess showing me what we have next year, but I kind of already know. So I don’t know.”
Baptiste, a graduate transfer from Virginia Tech, added that she has not made up her mind.
“Right now, I’m just focusing on this year and finishing the right way, winning,” she said.
McDonald and Thomas contributed to Arizona’s onslaught from 3-point range against the Huskies, combining to make 8 of 12 from beyond the arc.
Arizona made 12 of 16 (75 percent) from 3-point range to set a McKale Center record.
Baptiste, a post player, also made a 3-pointer and finished seven points (all in the first quarter) with five rebounds.
“My teammates are always telling me to shoot the ball more, so I just felt like on Senior Day, I might as well listen,” said Thomas with a laugh about her career-high six 3-pointers made in the game.
Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the general public was not allowed into McKale Center, but the families of the seniors were in attendance for Senior Day activities.
New Arizona football coach Jedd Fisch and his family, including his daughters, attended the first half of the game. Sean Miller was also in McKale.
McDonald finished with 20 points, extending her streak of double-figure scoring games to 82 games, and also had eight assists and three steals.
Thomas also had a season-high 17 points on 7-of-10 shooting from the field, including 6 of 8 from beyond the arc. Her previous best was five 3-pointers in a game against USC in 2018.
“We had some good looks because we’re just so much better when Sam is on point and she’s aggressive,” Barnes said. “We’re just a better team, we spread the floor better. I love it when she’s aggressive and doesn’t pass up shots. We’re just a better team when Sam plays like that.
“We know Sam is always going to be constant on defense. But when she’s looking for her shots and she’s hitting them and looking for her drives, we’re just a better team overall.”
— Arizona Women’s Basketball (@ArizonaWBB) February 14, 2021
Khayla Rooks, the daughter of Sean Rooks, played in McKale Center, where her dad became a legend, for the second consecutive year on Valentine’s Day.
Khayla was one of two Washington seniors honored before the game. Adia Barnes handed her a rose as a gift.
She made her 11th start of the season and finished with nine points and three rebounds.
Washington (5-11, 2-11) was led by Quay Miller’s 13 points.
Although it was Senior Day, Arizona’s freshmen made some waves.
Madison Conner, who only a month ago was at the high school level playing for AZ Compass Prep, played her first minutes of the season. She entered in the second quarter and also at the very end of the game and played five minutes.
Freshman post player Lauren Ware showed her versatility with her second 3-pointer of the season.
Arizona trailed only after Washington made the first shot of the game but the Wildcats built their lead from there.
They led 19-9 by the end of the first quarter with Baptiste, McDonald and Thomas combining for 17 of the points on 7 of 8 shooting from the field.
The trio had 27 of Arizona’s 37 points by halftime, leading the Wildcats to a 37-24 lead. They were never threatened in the second half.
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.