Year That Was 2021

Aari McDonald 2021 Sportsperson of the Year

Aari McDonald finished with 2,041 points in three years at Arizona after transferring from Washington (Arizona Athletics photo)

Arizona career leader in points per game
Third all-time on the Arizona scoring list
Arizona single-season and single-game scoring records
Third overall pick in the 2021 WNBA Draft
2021 Pac-12 Player of the Year
Three-time AP All-American
Two-time WBCA All-American
Two-time USBWA All-American
2020 & 2021 Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year
Three-time All-Pac-12
Three-time Pac-12 All-Defense
Six-time Pac-12 Player of the Week
2020 Ann Meyers Drysdale Award Winner
2019 Arizona Athletics Female Co-Sophomore of the Year
2017 Pac-12 All-Freshman
Two-Time Pac-12 Freshman of the Week

Aari McDonald is to Adia Barnes what Sean Elliott was to Lute Olson — an All-American gamechanger for a program in search of an identity.

McDonald, a three-time All-American and the 2020-21 Pac-12 Player of the Year, is the Sportsperson of the Year for how she helped Barnes make the once-dormant Wildcat program championship caliber.

In the heat of the NCAA championship game with Stanford in April, Barnes winked at McDonald and smiled — not before the game or at halftime away from the court, but right in the thick of things against Tara VanDerveer and the Cardinal.

When McDonald picked up her third foul with 3:11 remaining in the third quarter, she immediately looked toward Barnes at the bench and motioned with her hands to leave her in the game.

That’s when Barnes gave McDonald the wink and smile and left her All-American guard in the game.

Arizona trailed by only five points at that time.

“Our relationship was built on trust,” McDonald said, fighting through tears, after her last-second 3-point shot was just off the mark in Arizona’s 54-53 loss to the Cardinal at the Alamodome at San Antonio.

“We both value being relational. That means a lot. She’s helped me grow. I think I’ve helped her grow in many ways, as well.”

Olson’s strong relationship with Elliott and Steve Kerr, two of the best leaders he coached in his 24 years at Arizona, developed a base of trust for those who followed. The development of Kerr and Elliott with Olson as their coach left an imprint on a program that reached four Final Fours and achieved a national title in 1997 under the Hall of Fame coach.

The bond between Barnes and McDonald carries that same weight.

McDonald will always be thought of as one of the greatest to wear an Arizona uniform in any sport. The coach who brought her to Arizona and became like a big sister to her will also harken to what McDonald means to her building a winner from now until her last day as Arizona’s coach.

Their relationship was built starting when Barnes recruited McDonald from Bullard High School in Fresno, Calif., to play at Washington in 2016, the year Barnes was an assistant coach for the Huskies’ first Final Four team.

McDonald took a leap of faith to join Barnes at Arizona, which went 6-24 in 2017-18, the season she sat out because of NCAA transfer rules.

“I’m proud that I coached her,” Barnes said. “I’m proud she chose me twice. I’m proud she came to Arizona to do something special when we weren’t good. We were probably 300-something RPI.

“For her to come here and come back when she could have gone pro (after last season), then to lead us to the national championship and be one shot away from winning it all, I mean, she’s amazing.”

McDonald, the highest WNBA draft pick in Arizona history at No. 3 overall to Atlanta, said she is thankful for what Barnes has meant to her during her formative years as a player.

Tucson, the Arizona fanbase, the Pac-12 and the nation are thankful for what both mean to women’s basketball this season and beyond. Arizona’s first NCAA tournament appearance in 16 years and its first trip to the Final Four and national title game captivated the nation.

“She gave me the key. She really trusted me,” McDonald said of Barnes. “Coming in, she told me what my role would be on the team. I’m just really thankful for her. She’s put me in great positions and helped contribute to my success.”

In addition to the lack of draft picks, a dubious matter for Arizona is the longevity of the players who have played in the WNBA.

The average career span of the 15 players from Arizona who have competed in the WNBA is just 1.8 years.

The average career length in the league is almost doubled that at 3.5 years.

Barnes, Arizona’s ultra-successful head coach, has the longest WNBA career span of former Wildcats with seven seasons lasting from 1998 to 2004.

Davellyn Whyte’s career lasted only 31 games of one season with San Antonio despite her second-round selection in 2013. An ACL tear in her right knee before the 2014 season derailed her WNBA career. She later played briefly in France.

While Arizona went the last seven years without having a former player in the WNBA, UConn led all colleges with its 16 former players in the league last season. That makes Arizona’s win over Geno Auriemma’s program in the Final Four that much more impressive.

The difference was McDonald in the 69-59 win.

She finished with 26 points, seven rebounds and two steals.

“She just dominated the entire game start to finish,” Auriemma said. “We pride ourselves on being pretty good at certain things.

“We had no answer for her.”

Hillary Clinton said of McDonald in the Hysteria podcast, “She’s amazing,” although she did admit she cheered for Stanford in the title game because her daughter Chelsea and son-in-law Marc Mezvinsky are Stanford graduates.

“We were thrilled by Arizona,” Clinton said. “Also loved the confidence and the energy of these young women. Both coaches were so in there and saying, ‘We’re going to do this,’ and ‘Come on, you can make it.’ It goes down to (McDonald’s) buzzer shot … I thought it was a great game.”







FOLLOW @JAVIERJMORALES ON TWITTER! 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, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports,, 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. He became an educator five years ago and is presently a special education teacher at Gallego Fine Arts Intermediate in the Sunnyside Unified School District.

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