Arizona tried to complete an epic run beating two women’s college basketball giants — UConn and Stanford — in the Final Four to achieve the unthinkable.
The Wildcats, in their first NCAA Tournament in 16 years, came an off-balance 3-point attempt by Aari McDonald at the buzzer from living out a dream.
Stanford, the overall No. 1 seed in the tournament, escaped with a 54-53 win Sunday at the Alamodome at San Antonio.
McDonald, drawing triple teams most of the game, could not get a good look on the 3-pointer but the ball did meet the back of the rim. The ball just didn’t fall.
“Aari is a tremendous player,” Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said to ESPN after the game. “We’re fortunate to come out with a win.”
Arizona coach Adia Barnes in only her fifth year coached her alma mater to a potential title after only three years ago going 6-24 overall. That was the Wildcats’ 12th losing season in 13 years.
Barnes also took on so many roles and responsibilities this season beyond being Arizona’s coach.
She became a mom of her second child right before practice started in November. She was outspoken on civil rights matters during last year’s tumultuous turn of events nationally. She criticized the NCAA for the disparity between the weight-training facilities for men and women during the postseason.
She emerged as a figurehead for black females and moms with young families that there is hope for the future for people with similar ambitions.
“I can tell you all those things representing moms, former players, women of color, these things made me coach a little harder and want it a little bit more just because I received so much love from everybody,” Barnes said. “So many texts. All of my former WNBA friends, everybody, texted me. And they were rooting for me.
“I wanted it bad for so many reasons and I wasn’t able to get it done. I’m sad.”
She paused and became emotional.
McDonald fought back tears throughout her press conference.
“This should motivate my teammates coming back next year, with the momentum, and looking back on what we did,” McDonald said after taking a second to gather herself. “The sky’s the limit. I would tell them to just to stay together. This will make them hungry. This will make me hungry, all of us in our basketball journeys.”
McDonald had 22 points including two free throws with 36 seconds left to cut Stanford’s lead to 54-53.
Stanford’s Kiana Williams dribbled the clock down and the Cardinal could not get a shot off before the shot-clock buzzer went off.
Arizona inbounded the ball with 5.5 seconds left after a timeout. Shaina Pellington inbounded to McDonald, who tried to break free and twisted and turned to get the shot off.
“I got denied hard,” McDonald said of the last possession. “I tried to turn the corner. They sent three at me. I took a tough, contested shot. Didn’t fall.”
Aari McDonald’s last-second shot was so, so close to going in
— FOX College Hoops (@CBBonFOX) April 5, 2021
Arizona’s grit enabled the Wildcats to continuously fight back when Stanford looked like it could pull away.
The Wildcats were outrebounded 47-29 and shot only 28.8 percent from the field with a scant five assists as a team. They did not have a second-chance point while Stanford had 11. The Cardinal outscored Arizona 36-22 in the paint.
But Barnes’ team still came a jumper away from topping Stanford for a national title.
Arizona’s defense was the difference again. Stanford had 21 turnovers but the Wildcats mustered only 12 points off of them.
“If you would have told me that we were going to be down by 20 rebounds and shoot 28 percent, I would have told you we’d have lost by 30,” Barnes said. “Against great teams like Stanford, we have to be a little bit better at the small things, it doesn’t ever come down to the last shot.
“It comes out down to the missed free throws down the stretch. It comes down to the foul on a 3-point shot. It comes down to getting the turnovers and not converting. It’s those things. It’s never the last play. Obviously this stings pretty bad.”
Despite their shortcomings, the Wildcats stood tall against the Cardinal, who won the two regular season games between the teams by 42 points combined.
Pellington finished with 15 points, seven rebounds and three steals in a heroic performance by the reserve guard, providing some hope with McDonald moving on to a WNBA career.
Pellington played a season-high 30 minutes and she produced in every one of them.
“Shaina had her best game of the year,” Barnes said. “If Shaina did not have the game she had, the game does not come down to the end. Aari has passed the baton to her.”
Arizona trailed by 10 points in the third quarter but went on a 9-2 run to go into the fourth quarter down 43-40.
Bendu Yeaney had four of her five steals in the third quarter and McDonald came alive with eight points after having only five in the first half.
Stanford again pushed its lead to 49-40 with 7:30 left on a jumper by Haley Jones.
Two 3-pointers by McDonald and a 3-point play by Pellington enabled Arizona to rally again to cut the lead 51-50 with 3:35 remaining.
McDonald increased her streak to 93 games (her entire career at Arizona) with double-figure scoring.
She struggled from the field, attempting many times to go into “Aari’s House” of which ESPN commentators mentioned often. VanDerveer told her players to double- and triple-team McDonald, a lefty, on the left side of the lane.
UMcDonald had only five points on 2-of-11 shots from the field and she missed both of her free throw attempts in the first half. She finished 5 of 20 from the field, but made 4 of 9 from 3-point range and was 8 of 12 from the free-throw line.
The teams had runs in the first half with Stanford having the last one, an 11-0 stretch that put the Cardinal ahead 31-21 with 1:29 left before halftime.
Stanford looked dominant at the start, taking a 14-3 lead with 5:21 left in the first quarter.
The Cardinal, who had 10 turnovers in the first half, went on a scoreless stretch of more than 5 minutes, allowing Arizona to cut the lead to 16-12 with 9:15 left in the second quarter.
The Wildcats outscored Stanford 16-4 to take their first lead of the game, 21-20, with 4:53 left in the half following a steal and layup by Pellington.
“Shaina was the unsung hero today,” Thomas said. “Everyone always plays off her because she can’t shoot. In the past, it’s been like a downfall, but I think in this game, it really just helped her. She took it personal.
“She drove to the basket. She made great moves. We wouldn’t have gotten back from a 10-point deficit without Shaina. I’m super grateful for her. She had an amazing game.”
FOLLOW @JAVIERJMORALES ON TWITTER!
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.