The team that was overlooked is now looking over a fallen women’s basketball giant it knocked out.
Arizona, fueled by being the only Final Four team omitted from an NCAA promotional video on Thursday, dominated a UConn program in its 13th straight Final Four with its 69-59 victory Friday night at the Alamodome in San Antonio.
The mighty Huskies with Hall of Fame coach Geno Auriemma also had their 18-game winning streak snapped by Aari McDonald and the Miracles (line stolen from our own Steve Rivera) a la Danny Manning and the Miracles that won the national title for the Kansas men in 1988.
“Arizona played amazing,” Auriemma said. “It was incredibly difficult for us to get anything done. and I thought the intensity level that they played with and the aggressiveness on the defensive end, we just didn’t respond.”
How amazing is Arizona playing? They have defeated their Sweet 16, Elite Eight and Final Four opponents — Texas A&M, Indiana and UConn in order — by double-digits.
The Wildcats, playing in their first Final Four, will now go against another heavyweight and Hall of Fame coach — Stanford and Tara VanDerveer — in their first national championship game.
The Pac-12 rivals meet Sunday at 3 p.m. at the Alamodome. Arizona is hoping the third time is the charm against the Cardinal after losing to them 81-54 at McKale Center on New Year’s Day and 62-48 at Palo Alto, Calif., on Feb. 22.
Arizona was a 13.5-point underdog against UConn, so being a double-digit underdog again against Stanford — which is bound to happen because the Cardinal swept the Wildcats — won’t faze Adia Barnes’ team.
Barnes did shout, “Stop counting us out!” when ESPN’s Holly Rowe mentioned the NCAA promo video for the title game Sunday.
“It just motivates us and I love it … I love it,” Barnes emphasized after the game. “I’ve been an underdog all my life. I’ve been too small to do this and too inexperienced to do that. We prove them wrong every time so I don’t care. It’s just motivates me and my team.”
McDonald was the catalyst but her supporting cast again carried their weight in a game in which Arizona was the better team from start to finish. The Wildcats never trailed.
“My teammates are dogs,” McDonald said. “We just beat a great team. We beat UConn. It doesn’t get better than that.”
McDonald finished with 26 points, eclipsing 2,000 points in her Arizona career in the process (she is now at 2,019). She also has scored in double figures in 92 straight games, her entire Arizona career over the last three seasons.
All of the seven other Wildcats who played scored.
Sam Thomas had 12 points and Cate Reese had 11. Bendu Yeaney finished with eight points, four in the crucial waning seconds, and Trinity Baptiste seven.
slap that thing on pic.twitter.com/nEm1M7QeVu
— Arizona Women’s Basketball (@ArizonaWBB) April 3, 2021
Helena Pueyo pulled down eight rebounds to lead a strong rebounding effort for Arizona. UConn averaged a plus-11 rebound margin entering the game and the Wildcats finished with a 36-34 edge.
“I believe in my team; I would run through a wall for them,” said Barnes, who responded to a question by USA Today’s Lindsey Schnell of McDonald of whether Barnes said, “F— the NCAA!” in the postgame huddle.
“I did say a cuss word but it was more about everybody (not the NCAA). Nobody believed in us and we don’t care.”
Arizona weathered a late UConn surge to hold on to the win with the Huskies’ leading scorer Chrystn Williams (20 points) sitting with five fouls with 3:51 left.
Is there a better feeling? pic.twitter.com/4J3DsAXzHy
— Javier Morales (@JavierJMorales) April 3, 2021
McDonald scored seven straight points, including two on free throws with 1:35 left, to give Arizona a 60-52 lead.
The game ended with Arizona scoring 12 of its last 14 points on free throws as UConn tried to foul its way back into the game. Arizona made 22 of 31 shots from the free-throw line, including 13 of 19 in the fourth quarter.
Paige Bueckers, the Associated Press Player of the Year who had only five points at halftime, hit a 3-pointer with 1:26 left. She finished with 18 points on 5-of-13 shooting from the field.
Beaney, a 52.5 percent free-throw shooter, was fouled and she made both free throws with 59 seconds left to give Arizona a 62-55 lead.
One of two free throws by Aaliyah Edwards with 49 seconds left cut the lead to six points.
🗣WE ARE HERE pic.twitter.com/FbN9ke3uzN
— Arizona Women’s Basketball (@ArizonaWBB) April 3, 2021
Thomas then made one of two free throws. Yeaney fouled Evina Westbrook, who also made one of two from the line.
Reese followed with one of two free throws and then UConn’s possession came up empty on a missed jumper by Bueckers.
Reese was again fouled and made one of two with 20 seconds left. Yeaney then stole the ball from Nika Muhl and sealed the win the layup.
UConn looked like a boxer with wobbly legs most of the game because of Arizona’s defense.
The Huskies, who played with eight newcomers including six freshmen, appeared winded and mentally spent for most of the game.
Arizona went through a 5-minute scoring drought between the third and fourth quarters and the Wildcats still maintained close to a 10-point lead because UConn could not get into any flow.
“That was the main thing we wanted to do was to get them off their game,” said Thomas, who had five rebounds, a steal and blocked shot. “I mean, they average like 70 points (actually 82.7 points), so we just wanted to keep them below that. And they’re also young, a lot of them are freshmen or younger class, so we just wanted to try and throw them off their game as much as possible.”
Arizona started hot from the beginning with McDonald and Thomas making 3-pointers in the first three minutes of the game before UConn scored.
When asked about those two early 3-pointers (Arizona finished with seven), McDonald said they were “definitely important.”
“I mean, honestly, Coach Barnes hates it when I take threes on the first possession, but she’s not gonna tell me to stop shooting,” McDonald said. “I’m feeling it from downtown. I was just watching how the defense was playing me.
“To see Sam hit that three. … I’d love for her to shoot more. … It definitely gave us momentum and it made us play defense even harder.”
The Huskies trimmed the lead to 9-8 with 2:47 left in the first quarter, but in an important stretch, the Wildcats responded. They outscored UConn 7-2 at the end of the quarter.
🚨DOWN GOES UCONN 69-59!!!🚨
— Arizona Athletics (@AZATHLETICS) April 3, 2021
Reese had a 3-point play in that sequence and offered own of her animated screams in the process.
Arizona stretched it to an 11-2 run in the second quarter taking a 20-10 lead on two more baskets by Reese on consecutive possessions.
The Wildcats mounted a 12-point lead twice in the second quarter, including 32-20 following a very long range 3-pointer by McDonald with 2:52 left before halftime.
Arizona did not score again in the half but still led 32-22 at halftime, limiting UConn to its lowest scoring ouput in a half this season.
Bueckers had only five points on 1-of-4 shooting from the field at halftime.
“Our defense is suffocating and stingy,” McDonald told Rowe at halftime.
The Huskies had only eight made field goals (8 of 25) with nine turnovers in the first half. They finished with 12 turnovers but only made 15 of 44 from inside the arc. Despite having a decided height advantage, UConn was outscored 16-12 in the paint.
“We just played a little bit better (than UConn) tonight,” Barnes said. “Now, would I want to face UConn in a seven-game series? Absolutely not. I would not.
“This time of year just beating a team once you just gotta get hot.”
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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.