UConn has an aura but Arizona has Aari.
The Huskies (28-1) are in their 13th straight Final Four (21st overall) under legendary coach Geno Auriemma. The 13-year run is close to the span Arizona was out of the NCAA Tournament.
Behind the play of All-American guard Aari McDonald, Arizona (20-5) snapped a 16-year NCAA Tournament drought this season and has reached its first Final Four. The Wildcats face the Huskies on Friday at 6:30 p.m. (ESPN and KTUC 1400-AM will broadcast live).
McDonald, who sat out the 6-24 season in 2017-18 after transferring from Washington, credits Adia Barnes and her staff because “they changed the culture since I’ve been here. My teammates have put in so much work. It’s exciting to see it all pay off.”
Her teammates have increased their contribution in the postseason, much like those around Mike Bibby, Miles Simon and Michael Dickerson became factors during their 1996-97 title chase. Bennett Davison, Jason Terry, A.J. Bramlett and Donnell Harris became key contributors in different games during that magical run.
— Damon Stoudamire (@Iambiggie503) April 2, 2021
Barnes is getting the same quality minutes out of Cate Reese, Trinity Baptiste, Shaina Pellington, Helena Pueyo, Lauren Ware and Bendu Yeaney during March Madness.
“We’re going to put it all on the line. We play hard. We’re not soft. We don’t take plays off. We play with our hearts,” Barnes said of her seven-player rotation. “It may not be pretty, and that’s okay. We’re going to give 100 percent. Whatever happens at the end of that, whether we win or lose, that’s what’s meant to be.”
Arizona Career Scoring Leaders
McDonald scored 64 points in the Sweet 16 game against Texas A&M and Elite Eight matchup with Indiana, but her teammates were equally valuable, a rare feat.
Her scoring output in those games increased her three-year career total at Arizona to 1,993 points. She can achieve 2,000 career points at Arizona in only her 92nd game. She has scored in double figures in all of her 91 games with the Wildcats.
Overall, including her freshman season at Washington, McDonald has 2,266 points. With 11 points against UConn, she can crack the top 10 career scoring list in the Pac-12, matching the 2,277 scored by Washington’s Jazmine Davis from 2012-15 (who was coached by Barnes with the Huskies when she was an assistant there).
UConn’s 5-foot-11 guard Chrystn Williams will draw most of the defensive assignment on McDonald, who is listed at 5-6, but most of the pre-game talk has centered around who will have the bigger game between two All-Americans — freshman phenom Paige Bueckers or McDonald?
“She’s a dominant player, kind of like Paige,” Auriemma said. “The similarities are there have been numerous times, more than you can count, where (McDonald) just carries her team and wills them to win.”
Arizona basketball fans in general remember the off-shooting performances of point guards Steve Kerr and Damon Stoudamire in their respective Final Four games, losses against Oklahoma in 1988 and Arkansas in 1994, and they hope the same does not occur to McDonald in this one.
Arizona Career Blocked Shot Leaders
Kerr was 2 of 13 from the field, 2 of 12 from 3-point range, against the Sooners, and Stoudamire was 5 of 14 afield and 2 of 13 from beyond the arc against the Razorbacks.
On the flipside, Bibby made 6 of 11 shots from beyond the arc in Arizona’s Final Four win over North Carolina in 1997.
Barnes said McDonald and Bueckers on the same court is “really exciting.”
“It’s a senior against a freshman,” Barnes said. “I think Paige is a phenomenal player. I watched her all through AAU. She’s so good. She’s gonna be like the next Diana Taurasi or even write her own story.”
Another intriguing game-within-a-game is Arizona’s defense against UConn’s offensive execution.
The Huskies are fourth in the nation scoring 82.7 points a game. Arizona ranks 13th allowing only 55.2 points per game.
Bueckers, Williams, Evina Westbrook, Aaliyah Edwards and Olivia Nelson-Ododa is arguably the most formidable starting lineup in the nation. They engineered a 19-0 run in the second half to turn their fate around against Baylor in the Elite Eight.
UConn went 8-for-17 from 3-point range against the Bears and its half-court execution was flawless down the stretch with backdoor cuts similar to the famed Princeton offense and also penetration from guards.
“I think one of the keys is going to be not getting beat back door, not allowing easy 3-point shots,” Barnes said. “We need to control the tempo because they a lot of different ways to score and they’re really good, so we have to play them honest and have to play really good defense. “
Arizona must also prevent UConn from an abundance of second chances. The Huskies are sixth in the nation with an average rebounding margin of 11.6 against opponents. Arizona is 164th with a minus-0.2 average.
Auriemma mentioned Arizona’s full-court defense that is forcing 17.6 turnovers per game (while averaging 10.6 steals) is “relentless.”
“They compete exceptionally hard,” he said. “They get contributions from the whole team. When you have that kind of base to work with, than anything’s possible.
“I think that Adia has got this kind of temperament (showed his hand level) — you know, so she’s going to keep them level. They’re not going to be afraid of the moment and I don’t think they’re going to be wacked out over the moment. I think they’ve got a lot going for them. … I could think of a lot of other teams I’d rather be playing Friday night.”
UConn’s lone loss was Jan. 28 at Arkansas 90-87. The Razorbacks are coached by Mike Neighbors, who coached Washington to its first Final Four in 2015-16 with Barnes on his staff. Do you think they may have communicated this week?
That was a shootout, however, without much defense on either side.
Arizona does not want to get into a shootout with UConn.
“We can’t trade buckets. That’s gonna be dangerous. We can’t do that at all,” McDonald said. “Coming into the game, I’m not focused on offense right now as much as on defense. I mean, defense wins games.
“If I buckle down down on defense, do my job and my teammates are also doing their job on defense, the offense will come. UConn is a high scoring team and they’re very efficient. They can do it from all over the court. We definitely can’t get into trading baskets early.”
20-5 overall, 13-4 Pac-12
NET ranking: No. 15
Big Wins: Dec. 4 No. 8 UCLA (68-65), Jan. 14 No. 10 Oregon (57-41), Jan. 17 No. 36 Oregon State (67-51), Feb. 8 at No. 10 Oregon (79-59), March 24 No. 50 BYU (52-46), March 27 No. 11 Texas A&M (74-59), March 29 No. 9 Indiana (66-53).
Bad Loss: Feb. 28 at No. 95 Arizona State (66-64 OT)
Coach: Adia Barnes (88-65, fifth season)
- G Aari McDonald, Sr., 20.3 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 4.3 apg, 2.7 spg
- G Bendu Yeaney, Jr., 4.0 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 1.4 apg
- F Sam Thomas, Sr., 7.4 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 1.6 apg, 2.4 spg, 1.2 bpg
- F Trinity Baptiste, Sr., 8.7 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 1.0 spg
- F Cate Reese, Jr., 11.2 ppg, 5.4 rpg
Key Role Players:
- G Helena Pueyo, Soph., 3.8 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 1.6 spg
- F Lauren Ware, Fr., 4.1 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 1.1 bpg
- G Shaina Pellington, Jr., 5.6 ppg
- G Madi Conner, Fr., 1.0 ppg
By the Numbers:
- Scoring Offense: 66.8 (129th in nation)
- Scoring Defense: 55.2 (13)
- Field-Goal Percentage: 41.4 (114)
- Field-Goal Percentage Defense: 36.8 (35)
- Three-Point Field Goals Per Game: 6.2 (136)
- Three-Point Field-Goal Percentage: 33.8 (73)
- Free-Throw Percentage: 68.8 (189)
- Rebound Margin: -0.2 (164)
- Assists Per Game: 11.8 (229)
- Turnovers Per Game: 12.4 (19)
NCAA tournament appearance: Eighth
Furthest NCAA tournament run: Final Four in 2020-21
28-1, 18-0 Big East
NET ranking: No. 2
Big Wins: Jan. 21 at No. 14 Tennessee (67-61), Feb. 5 at No. 34 Marquette (87-58), Feb. 8 No. 4 South Carolina (63-59), March 23 No. 43 Syracuse (83-47), March 27 No. 23 Iowa (92-72), March 29 No. 3 Baylor (69-67).
Bad Losses: None.
Coach: Geno Auriemma (1,119-143, 36th season at UConn)
- G Paige Bueckers, Fr., 20.1 ppg, 5.9 apg, 4.8 rpg, 2.3 spg
- G Christyn Williams, Jr., 16.1 ppg, 2.3 apg, 4.3 rpg
- G Evina Westbrook, Jr., 9.4 ppg, 4.3 apg, 5.3 rpg, 1.8 spg
- F Aaliyah Edwards, Fr., 10.8 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 1.0 bpg, 1.0 spg
- F Olivia Nelson-Ododa, Jr., 12.4 ppg, 7.9 rpg, 3.0 apg, 1.6 bpg
Key Role Players:
- G Nika Muhl, Fr., 5.0 ppg, 2.8 apg, 1.8 spg
- F Aubrey Griffin, Soph., 6.5 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 1.2 spg
- G Anna Makurat, Soph., 3.9 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 2.5 apg
By the Numbers:
- Scoring Offense: 82.7 (4th in nation)
- Scoring Defense: 52.0 (4)
- Field-Goal Percentage: 51.6 (1)
- Field-Goal Defense: 33.5 (4)
- Three-Point Field Goals Per Game: 6.8 (100)
- Three-Point Field-Goal Percentage: 35.4 (37)
- Free-Throw Percentage: 71.4 (134)
- Rebound Margin: 11.7 (6)
- Assists Per Game: 20.8 (1)
- Turnovers Per Game: 14.1 (71)
NCAA Tournament appearance: 33rd
Furthest NCAA Tournament run: NCAA championship 11 times, most recent in 2015-16.
History against Arizona: 1-0, UConn defeated Arizona 74-57 in the Sweet 16 at Dayton, Ohio, at the conclusion of the 1997-98 season. Barnes led the Wildcat with 17 points and 11 rebounds. Starting center Marte Alexander left the game midway through the second half with a torn ACL and the Huskies pulled away in the last five minutes.
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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.