Arizona is finding no peril in this unchartered territory with its confidence coming from the play of Aari McDonald and coaching of Adia Barnes.
The shirts Arizona’s coaches wore for the ESPN2 audience to see on Saturday night had the message, “Leave a Legacy.”
The third-seeded Wildcats (19-5) have achieved that honor by earning a trip to the Elite Eight for the first time in program history with the 74-59 win over No. 2 seed Texas A&M at San Antonio.
The Aggies are from the big, bad SEC with only one loss in that conference and a win over perennial power South Carolina. Legendary coach Gary Blair argued that his team that finished 25-3 should have been a No. 1 seed when the brackets were announced.
“We beat a really good team that could have won the championship,” Barnes said.
Blair said of Arizona’s decisive speed advantage over his taller team: “They wanted the loose balls more … When they made their (runs) we couldn’t answer back because of our turnovers.”
Arizona had only eight turnovers, three through the first three quarters, and outscored Texas A&M 28-2 in points off turnovers. The Aggies had difficulty matching the Wildcats’ quickness as time went on and committed 19 turnovers.
McDonald had a season-high 31 points and made six of the Wildcats’ season-best 13 shots from 3-point range in their convincing win.
“I’m proud of these ladies alongside of me,” McDonald said. “We put in a lot of work. I’m just so happy. We’re not done yet. Like coach said, we haven’t arrived. I believe we can go all the way.”
The Wildcats — in their first NCAA Tournament in 16 years — will play No. 4 Indiana on Monday. The Hoosiers, who also are in their first Elite Eight, upset No. 1 seed North Carolina State 73-70 in their Sweet 16 game.
If you believe in divine intervention, the monumental win over Texas A&M occurred on the late Shawntinice Polk’s birthday.
“I am so happy I’m doing it with the kids who came to Arizona on a leap of faith,” said Barnes, who was 20-40 in her first two years at her alma mater after taking the job in 2016.
Sam Thomas overcame tears and thoughts of leaving the program when Arizona went 6-24 in her freshman season in 2017-18. McDonald had to wade through doubts after sitting out that season after transferring from a Washington program that went to the Final Four two years prior.
In McDonald’s first season in 2018-19, Arizona won the WNIT title. Now, the Wildcats are a game away from the Final Four.
“It’s insane,” Thomas said. “It’s a great feeling just to know that I believed in what Adia was preaching and it worked out. Here we are.”
Not done yet. pic.twitter.com/MHdrRv5l43
— Arizona Women’s Basketball (@ArizonaWBB) March 28, 2021
Despite going where Arizona has never been as a program, the Wildcats are approaching the next game against the Hoosiers as unfinished business.
“I’m seeing a look in their eyes that’s a look of confidence,” Barnes said. “I’m seeing they are ready to go to war. I’m seeing that they believe in what I’m saying and what I’m asking them to do.
“There’s no question they look me in the eye and and they’re ready. I’m ready to go to war with this team. I wouldn’t choose it any different way with any other team. We’re ready for the next game.”
McDonald could not be stopped by any of Texas A&M defenders. She made 12 of 21 shots from the field, including 6 of 12 from 3-point range.
Thomas added nine points with all her points from beyond the arc on 3-of-6 shooting.
Cate Reese, from nearby Cypress, Texas, had eight points and nine rebounds against a program that tried to recruit her. The 6-foot-2 post player, who is Arizona’s first McDonald’s All-American, made 2 of 4 shots from 3-point range. She has five 3-pointers in the NCAA Tournament after making only seven all season before March Madness.
Arizona already has 26 made 3-pointers (26 of 60, 43.3 percent) in the first three games of the NCAA tournament. The Wildcats converted only 21 of 85 (24.7 percent) from beyond the arc in the five games before March Madness, a stretch in which the Wildcats struggled with a 2-3 record.
“I think we’re moving the ball a lot more,” Thomas said. “We’re driving and we’re kicking, so we’re getting assists off those shots. It’s not just we’re creating our own shot. We’re driving and we’re hitting open 3’s, which I think helps our percentage go up.”
Barnes and McDonald said the team took exception to media reports of Arizona struggling offensively, and the Wildcats’ performance answers that criticism.
Arizona Defense® pic.twitter.com/o9uTmhkI1j
— Arizona Women’s Basketball (@ArizonaWBB) March 28, 2021
“Oh, all the time, anything someone says about our team we take it personal and we show them literally the next game,” said McDonald , who made 6 of 12 shots from beyond the arc.
Arizona had 16 assists for its 28 made field goals against Texas A&M.
“A lot of people have questioned our offense and it’s quite irritating because it’s not who we are,” Barnes said. “We are a very good defensive team. We are going to grind you out. We’re going to put pressure on teams. We’re gonna make it ugly. We’re going to turn you over and then that creates our offense. That’s our personnel.”
Texas A&M guard Jordan Nixon, who had 35 points in the Aggies’ Sweet 16 win over Iowa State, had only three points while going 1 of 6 from the field.
That follows a trend of Arizona’s defense shutting down the opposition’s top performer in the previous game.
Stony Brook’s Anastasia Warren had 31 points in the American East championship game before playing Arizona. She had zero against the Wildcats in the first round. BYU’s Paisley Harding scored 28 against Rutgers in the first round before facing Arizona. She had two against the Wildcats on Wednesday.
Warren, Harding and Nixon were a combined 2 of 21 against Arizona.
“They just have a really good defensive team, and we didn’t answer as much as we should have,” said Aaliyah Wilson, who led the Aggies with 17 points.
McDonald had 19 points by halftime against Texas A&M, including five in a 10-0 run, that gave Arizona a 27-19 lead with 5:49 left in the second quarter.
Texas A&M responded with an 11-3 run to tie the game at 30 with 2:37 remaining in the first half. Wilson and Wells each made two shots apiece in the lane in that run.
The Aggies, who had a size advantage with 6-foot-2 forward N’Dea Jones and 6-4 center Ciera Johnson, scored 22 of their 32 points in the paint in the first half. They mustered only 12 points in the lane in the second half.
Arizona used its speed to its advantage scoring mostly in transition to take a 48-40 lead with 4:45 left in the third quarter.
The Wildcats’ lead increased to 59-44 in the waning seconds of the quarter after Texas A&M went through a 1-of-6 stretch with seven turnovers.
McDonald fueled Arizona’s 56.3 percent shooting in the Wildcats’ pivotal third quarter making all three of her attempts from beyond the arc.
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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.