The program that couldn’t just did.
Arizona has more losing seasons (30) than it has winning (18).
It is in the Final Four.
Arizona lost its first 47 games against ranked opponents from 1977 to 1988. It had another such streak of 49 games from 2005 to 2014.
It is in the Final Four.
The Wildcats ranked ninth in attendance in the Pac-12 the season before Adia Barnes arrived at her alma mater in 2016.
They are in the Final Four and Tucson is in a frenzy.
“If you would have told me, ‘Oh, this year we’re gonna be playing UConn in the Final Four, I would have said, ‘I don’t know about that,'” Barnes said with an incredulous look on her face late Monday night at the Alamodome in San Antonio while wearing an Arizona Final Four cap.
“I felt like we’ve just found ways to get wins and found ways to make big plays.”
Aari McDonald‘s 33 points and 11 rebounds propelled Arizona to its first Final Four in program history with the 66-53 victory over Indiana in the Mercado Regional final of the NCAA Tournament.
“Congratulations to Arizona,” Indiana coach Teri Moren said. “What a great team. What a great effort that they put on display tonight.”
Arizona (20-5) will play perennial power Connecticut in the Final Four on Friday. Indiana (21-6) ends its season after reaching its first Elite Elite.
“It’s a surreal moment,” said McDonald, who produced 64 points in the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight wins over Texas A&M and Indiana. “You make goals and to see yourself and your team achieve them like this, it’s crazy.”
McDonald made 12 of 20 shots from the field and 5 of 6 from 3-point range against the Hoosiers, but as dominating of a performance that was, it was her supporting cast that was the difference.
Trinity Baptiste withstood Indiana’s height inside and finished with 12 points and 10 rebounds.
Helena Pueyo made two 3-pointers that broke the Hoosiers’ back in the fourth quarter. Also in the closing minutes, her one-handed push of a loose ball, avoiding an oncoming Indiana player, from midcourt to former Indiana player Bendu Yeaney near the basket for an uncontested shot was like a strike in bowling.
Sam Thomas nailed a 3-pointer in the fourth quarter as well, which was one of nine from beyond the arc for the Wildcats after they had a season-high 13 against the Aggies on Saturday. Arizona has made 35 shots from 3-point range in the NCAA Tournament. That’s nearly 25 percent of what they have made all season.
“Never in a million years would I have thought we’d make it to the Final Four,” said Thomas, who by Barnes’ account had emotional moments as a freshman and thought about transferring when Arizona went 6-24 overall and 2-14 in the Pac-12 in 2017-18.
“My goal was make it to the NCAA Tournament at least one year that I’m here,” Thomas continued. “Now we made it to the Final Four. I mean, I’m speechless. This is incredible. We’re making history and we’ve just come a long way from my freshman year. I don’t think the newcomers understand how much this means to the people that have been here from the beginning, but we’re so grateful to have them.”
Arizona’s win had a heart-stopping moment when McDonald laid on the court emotional after suffering an ankle injury with 2:35 left with Arizona leading 57-50.
After a couple of moments on the floor, McDonald went to the bench area under her own power and was looked at by the Arizona trainer. She returned to the game with same score with 1:54 left.
“I never cry,” McDonald said with a smile, “so that’s how you kind of knew I was in pain. I shook it off. My team needs me and I wanted to get back on the court and seal the win. I had to suck it up. I’ll be fine.”
After two free throws by McDonald that gave Arizona a 60-52 lead with 1:22 left, Grace Berger was fouled four seconds later. She made one of two free throws.
Pueyo’s loose-ball play to Yeaney followed with 1:09 left.
Berger then missed a shot and Yeaney was fouled. She added a free throw with 56 seconds remaining to increase Arizona’s lead to 63-53. From then, it was a matter of time.
McDonald did in fact seal the win with a steal and a driving layup, getting fouled in the process with 34 seconds left. She made the free throw to give Arizona its final margin of victory.
Indiana missed six of its last seven shots over the last five minutes of the game. The Hoosiers also had two turnovers in that span.
Barnes talks about cutting the 40-minute game into five-minute wars. The last five-minute war was like the Battle of Gettysburg for Arizona, dominating Indiana to the end.
The Hoosiers’ seven wins against the NET Top 50 did not come into play against a Wildcat team who thought they were denied of a deep run last year when COVID-19 canceled that plan.
“With I think 4:36 left, they called timeout, and we knew that was going to be our last war,” Thomas said. “We knew they’re going to try and make the game as long as possible. We just tried to stay composed. Obviously, Aari went down for a little bit so we knew that we had to win this game for not only Bendu (against her old team) but also Aari.”
The Hoosiers had just nine turnovers against Arizona’s pressure but they made only 36.4 percent from the field, including an 0 of 9 performance from beyond the arc.
Indiana outscored Arizona 30-22 in the paint but the Wildcats used their quickness to outrebound the Hoosiers 42-34. That led to 12 second-chance points and 11 fast-break points for Arizona.
McDonald had 17 points by halftime when Arizona took a 27-23 lead.
She shot 7 of 11 from the field in the first half. Her teammates made only 4 of 18 shots at that time.
.@AariMcdonald now No. 3 in Arizona’s career scoring list with 1,967 points, passing Dee-Dee Wheeler’s 1,966 (with Wildcats from 2001-05). Adia Barnes holds the record with 2,237 points (1994-98) and Davellyn Whyte No. 2 with 2,059 (2009-13). pic.twitter.com/JqV3dTyyOZ
— Javier Morales (@JavierJMorales) March 30, 2021
Baptiste got involved in the third quarter scoring eight points.
Her 3-pointer with 7:37 left in the period gave Arizona a 35-27 and forced Indiana to call a timeout.
The Hoosiers responded with a 9-2 run to cut the lead to 37-36 with 4:21 left in the period.
Arizona went on to outscore Indiana 20-9 in the fourth quarter to pull out the win behind Pueyo, Baptiste, Thomas, McDonald, the rowdy bench and the Arizona contingent that started chanting, “U of A.”
“When you look in your players’ eyes and there’s this look of belief and confidence, I love coaching that,” Barnes said. “I try to coach my heart out and do my best for this team. I’m proud of them.”
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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.