Aari McDonald and Sam Thomas playing the last game of their storied Arizona careers at home without a packed McKale Center?
This can’t be.
It would be like Sean Elliott departing from McKale for the last time without a throng of well-wishers, Ricky Hunley and Tedy Bruschi strapping on the Arizona helmet for the last time in silence at Arizona Stadium or Jennie Finch striking out a batter and walking from the circle one final time at Hillenbrand Stadium without a standing ovation.
In front of what was then a record crowd of 4,693 fans at McKale Center, Adia Barnes, the best women’s basketball player at Arizona before McDonald arrived, played her last game in Tucson on March 15, 1998, when Arizona routed Virginia 94-77 in a second round game of the NCAA tournament.
She finished with 30 points and 10 rebounds, and when she was pulled late in the game by Joan Bonvicini, the boisterous crowd at McKale sent her off with a standing ovation.
The families of McDonald and Thomas will be in attendance Sunday at noon when No. 10 Arizona (13-2, 11-2 Pac-12) hosts Washington, which is nice and intimate, but no other fans for the Wildcats’ last scheduled home game will be allowed because of COVID-19 protocol.
McDonald, Thomas and fellow senior Trinity Baptiste will play with piped in crowd noise and a PA announcer who is describing what is happening only to the two teams, the refs, Arizona’s support staff, a small amount of media and the families of McDonald and Thomas.
“It’s definitely surreal,” Thomas said about the possibility of playing her last game at McKale. “It doesn’t feel like it because these four years have gone by so fast. I feel like I have four more years and I’m just a freshman.
“But it was nice to have my family here for my weekend here in McKale. I mean, it’s rough not having fans here, but at least I got to have my family here.”
McDonald, Thomas and Baptiste have the option of returning next year, because the NCAA allowed an extra year of eligibility due to COVID-19 affecting schedules. None of the players have announced a decision.
The NCAA women’s basketball tournament will be held mostly in San Antonio this year, with first-round games at nearby San Marcos and Austin. The NCAA has yet to announce if fans will be allowed. If fans can attend, expect arenas to be only at 25 percent capacity.
Baptiste told the media last week that she feels like a recruit again because of how Barnes is making a push for her to return.
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“Let me say first, from the moment Coach Adia found out that they’re giving everyone an extra year she’s been recruiting me,” Baptiste said.
Barnes is one of the best recruiters in the game, so can she sway one, two or maybe all three of them to return?
“Don’t think I won’t be recruiting these kids at the end of the year,” Barnes said. “Not right now. I’m not talking about it, but I’ll be recruiting my three top recruits. … I don’t know about Aari, because I don’t know if she wants to come back again, but I’m going to still try. So Aari, Sam and Trinity — those are my three top recruits right now.”
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It will be understandable if McDonald leaves. She almost left to the WNBA after last season following her fourth collegiate season.
An All-American in serious contention for the Wooden and Naismith awards for national player of the year, McDonald is projected to be one of the top three picks in the WNBA draft.
McDonald is one of the most, if not the most, electrifying players to play at Arizona for either the women or men. Her name belongs among the greatest to play at McKale along with Barnes, Sean Elliott, Damon Stoudamire, Mike Bibby, Jason Terry, Bob Elliott, Al Fleming, Shawntinice Polk and Steve Kerr.
McDonald will leave Arizona with the greatest scoring average in school history whether she returns or not. She is averaging 21.7 points a game, more than three points higher than Barnes’ career mark of 18.5.
If stats were kept for number of times diving for loose balls, McDonald would have an untouchable school record.
If there is such a thing as a “hustle stat,” McDonald would have an insurmountable total.
McDonald and Thomas share the lead in the Pac-12 in steals with 2.4 a game.
Despite being the shortest player in Arizona’s rotation at 5-foot-6, McDonald has the most defensive rebounds (80) on the team, which translates into her pushing the ball up for the floor for transition buckets.
McDonald’s name will be in the Ring of Honor and her jersey No. 2 will be placed high in McKale Center.
Sunday might be McDonald’s last as an Arizona player at Tucson — the school would be wise to schedule an exhibition game at McKale involving the WNBA team that drafts her — but a time will come soon in which a packed arena will celebrate her Arizona career.
If Thomas leaves for a chance at the WNBA, it would also bring mixed emotions for Arizona’s program and its fans.
Barnes, her coaches and the fans would be happy for the jovial Thomas, who means so much more to the team than her gaudy defensive stats and 3-point numbers.
A void will exist until the school brings her back to be celebrated in front of a large crowd.
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My journalistic journey has included the fortune of covering Barnes, Stoudamire, Bibby and Terry during their playing days.
McDonald and Thomas bring rare attributes that have not been seen before by me or others who have followed the men’s and women’s programs over the last 30 years or so.
McDonald is the consummate team player who happens to be an All-American, sacrificing her body, motoring nonstop, taking charge — taking charges — and playing with a unique flair for the game. She makes you glued to the set for what she might do next and not too many players are like that.
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Thomas is the most affable and engaging personality I’ve come across at Arizona in my years as a reporter going back to 1985. For all this time, I thought Terry was that player and he’s still up there. His selfless and positive demeanor as the sixth man was an important element for Arizona winning the national title in 1997.
Thomas exudes positivity that generally comes from a role player who tries to keep the team engaged from the top player to the last on the bench. Thomas is one of the best players in the nation filling that part.
Who would not want to be her teammate? She loves to laugh and not take herself seriously. She motivates. She is the ultimate example of a player who can be carefree and so caring at the same time, becoming a dominant player on the court after the tip until the final horn.
If Sunday is indeed the last time McDonald and Thomas — Baptiste too because McDonald and Thomas would want her mentioned — play at McKale representing Arizona, a packed arena will not send them off but a legion of fans will be behind them as they move on.
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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.