Arizona did not score in more than three minutes and BYU put together a stretch of six unanswered points to take a four-point lead with a little more than 5 minutes to play.
Adia Barnes called a timeout.
The best season in Arizona’s history was either going to slip away to a story of unfulfilled promises or one that could be remembered for years for how the Wildcats pulled out their most meaningful win — which they did 52-46 on Wednesday at San Antonio to reach their first Sweet 16 in 23 years.
Aari McDonald mentioned that Barnes told the team in the huddle during that timeout with 5:03 left, “‘We’re not losing. Now let’s pick it up, play together and get stops.’ We took that to heart. We didn’t want to go home.”
McDonald proceeded to make a step-back 3-pointer to end the scoring drought, one of a few dry spells that did not allow the Wildcats to pull away from the Cougars, who were obviously not seeded correctly by the NCAA tournament selection committee as the last at-large team to join The Big Dance.
Arizona’s defense forced BYU into a shot-clock violation.
Sam Thomas then drained a 3-pointer.
The dream was coming back to life much the same way Arizona and Miles Simon awoke late, just in time, against South Alabama in the first round in 1997 en route to the Wildcats’ national title.
“We weren’t hitting shots early on in the game but everyone just told us to keep shooting, keep shooting and they’ll fall eventually,” Thomas said of her 3-pointer following McDonald’s shot from beyond the arc. “We were lucky enough to have them fall when they mattered, especially close in possessions. It gave us momentum, a run, motivation and a lockdown on defense.”
Shaylee Gonzales, who kept BYU afloat, started to look spent after going against McDonald and Thomas — two-time members of the Pac-12’s All-Defensive Team — most of the game. She missed a jumper on the Cougars’ next possession, and McDonald tracked down her 11th rebound of the game.
Helena Pueyo capped an 8-0 run to put Arizona up 47-43 with 2:53 left by nailing a mid-range jumper off a crossover dribble.
Tegan Graham then hit a 3-pointer for BYU, which always answered when it seemed Arizona could mount a run to pull away.
The game was back and forth throughout. No team led by more than six points and there were 12 lead changes and nine ties.
McDonald missed a 3-pointer and it appeared as though BYU could corral the rebound and have a chance to take the lead, but Trinity Baptiste punched the ball out toward McDonald in the nick of time. McDonald drove for a layup to put Arizona ahead 49-46 with 1:11 remaining.
Kaylee Smiler missed a 3-pointer with 44 seconds left and again BYU was in position to grab the rebound and get another shot, but McDonald swiped the ball away from Gonzales. The official scorer called it a rebound for McDonald, but it definitely was a steal.
“I had to lock in,” McDonald said. “Personally in the first half, I feel like I did not help my teammates (with four points). I was not a threat on the defensive end. … I really wanted the game. I had to buckle down and had to take pride.”
BYU had four fouls to give at that point. On the last foul with 16 seconds left, Thomas went to free throw line and made one of two to give Arizona a two-possession lead, 50-46.
BYU coach Jeff Judkins, who helped foil Arizona’s shot at a repeat championship in 1998 as a Utah assistant when the Utes beat Simon and the Wildcats in the Elite Eight, called timeout with 14.3 seconds left. Before Gonzales could take a shot off the inbounds pass, McDonald stripped the ball away and made the uncontested layup to give Arizona the 52-46 margin of victory.
“My team kind of beared down and found a way to make it big plays at the end,” said Barnes, who holds the distinction as being the first player and coach at Arizona to make the Sweet 16. ” I don’t think we played our best today, but we found a way to get the job done. We’ve handled adversity all year. Just to come together and find a way to win, it’s just huge.”
McDonald had 17 points, 11 rebounds and four steals to lead No. 3-seeded Arizona (18-5) to the Sweet 16 for only the second time in school history and the first time since Barnes led the program that far following the 1997-98 season.
BYU (19-6) ended its season short of reaching its first Sweet 16 since the 2013-14 season.
“It was a good fight tonight,” Judkins said. “Both teams fought very hard and were very physical. In games like this, it comes down right to the end and which team hits the big shot or makes the right play.”
Cate Reese finished with 12 points, including two made 3-pointers, and Baptiste had 11 rebounds before fouling out with 56 seconds left.
Gonzales, a Gilbert Mesquite alum, had 16 points and nine rebounds to lead BYU. Graham added 13 points.
Arizona’s 7-0 run, capped by a Reese 3-pointer, put Arizona ahead 30-27 with 7:44 left in the third quarter. BYU quickly answered with a layup by Lauren Gustin.
— Arizona Women’s Basketball (@ArizonaWBB) March 25, 2021
The Wildcats again pushed ahead to 36-32 with a 3-pointer by Reese with 5:37 remaining in the third quarter, but Graham immediately responded with a 3-pointer.
“This was all new to us being here, coming to the tournament with a target on our back. It’s hard. It’s hard to get wins because everybody’s so good. There’s so much parody in women’s basketball. I am just so proud of the big plays we made,” Barnes said.
Paisley Harding, who had 28 points in BYU’s win over Rutgers in the first round, was limited to two points on 1-of-7 shooting in the first half and missed two shots in the second half. She appeared to be rattled by a hard fall with her head hitting the floor in the first half.
In the last two games, Arizona has nearly blanked two players who had career performances the game before. Stony Brooks’ Anastasia Warren went from 31 points in the America East championship to none while missing six shots in Arizona’s 79-44 win in the first round.
McDonald continued her double-digit scoring streak to 89 games with a jump shot with 8:09 left in the game. Her 11 rebounds matched her season high and came one shy of her career-best of 12 achieved three times.
Goodnight everyone. pic.twitter.com/P8zQqL4J6g
— Arizona Women’s Basketball (@ArizonaWBB) March 25, 2021
“I just had to put the team on my back,” McDonald said. “I’m proud of this team because years before we would have got rattled.
“We were cool, calm and collected. We came together and we played together and that’s why we got the dub.”
Dub, as in win, and now the Wildcats are only four dubs from a national title, believe it or not.
No. 2 seed Texas A&M (25-2) stands in the way of Arizona’s next “dub,” and the program’s first Elite Eight appearance, when the teams play on Saturday at 5 p.m. in San Antonio.
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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.