Wildcats were feel-good story of the spring; Aari McDonald’s dad proud of herculean effort

Arizona Wildcats guard Aari McDonald (2) is comforted as the Wildcats leave the floor after losing to Stanford in NCAA Tournament National Championship game at the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas on April 4, 2021. Stanford won 54-53.

SAN ANTONIO — Arizona’s NCAA Tournament run was the feel-good story of the spring — right up to the final shot in Sunday’s 54-53 loss to Stanford in the national championship game.

Those who know the Wildcats best were impressed, but not necessarily surprised. They’ve followed the Wildcats since Adia Barnes took over five years ago, witnessed the turnaround and the exciting play, and — back when fans were allowed — packed McKale Center.

The Wildcats amassed new fans during the NCAA Tournament, the bandwagon growing — and the excitement and momentum building — with each win. On Sunday, before the biggest game the Wildcats had ever played, fans in San Antonio stood behind a barricade at the team hotel to cheer them on.

Cardinals star J.J. Watt and basketball legend Magic Johnson were intrigued by the team, star player Aari McDonald, their “us against the world” mentality, and their dynamic coach.

Barnes called her team “special.”

“I think when you’re a coach and your team plays their hearts out for you, there’s a good connection,” Barnes said. “… They will run through a wall for me, and they did that. They fought. They played their hearts out. … They stuck together … they were resilient. They handled adversity. They didn’t complain. They didn’t second-guess things. We ask a lot. I ask a lot from them off the court, on the court. We do a lot at Arizona, whether it’s community service — a little less this year because of COVID — but tons of skill work, a lot of little things, and they did it. They never complained. They never questioned the things I asked them to do.”

“…I’ll remember when everybody around the country didn’t believe in us, counted us out. We believed in each other. We did that. We celebrated each other. We fought and we made it to the championship game. We’re not the best team in the country. We’re not the deepest team, not the tallest team. … Just proud of this team, our resiliency, our mental toughness, our want to win. The way they fought for me.

“They never had a doubt. They looked me in the eyes and fought. I love them. I wouldn’t ask for anything … I wouldn’t change anybody. I wouldn’t get bigger, change my players. Don’t care if we can’t shoot here, can’t post; I don’t care because we fight, and that’s all I can ask.”

Thomas returning

Sam Thomas, who endured a six-win season as a freshman only to advance all the way to the national championship game as a senior, isn’t done yet.

Thomas said during Monday’s welcome-home event that she will be returning to the Wildcats next season. The NCAA is granting an extra year of eligibility to everybody who competed during the coronavirus pandemic this year.

“I love you guys so much, it’s been a great journey with my teammates, and I’m going to come back for one more year,” she said, prompting cheers of excitement from the fans gathered at Arizona Stadium and celebratory dancing from her teammates.

Thomas was a stat-sheet-filler this season, averaging 7.3 points and 3.4 rebounds while adding 61 steals and 31 blocks. Thomas could be in line to take on a larger scoring role with star guard Aari McDonald off to the WNBA.

Thomas scored 12 points in the Wildcats’ upset win over UConn in the national semifinals.

Thomas recently earned the NCAA’s Elite90 honor for academics in all of Division I women’s basketball. Thomas graduated from the UA in three years, carrying a 3.97 GPA, and is now earning her master’s in educational leadership. In March, she was named Pac-12 Scholar Athlete of the Year.

A dad’s pride

McDonald, one of the Wildcats’ most stoic players, was uncharacteristically emotional after missing what would have been the game-winning shot at the buzzer. Sunday’s loss hurt like no other.

After the game, McDonald’s dad, Aaron, told her to keep her head up.

“You played a great game, a great season, a great career,” Aaron McDonald said he told her. “Nothing to be ashamed about. This chapter is closed, but now you are off to a new journey and the sky is the limit.”

Aaron McDonald has seen all the hard work his daughter put in to make good on the promise she made to UA fans — that when she was done, Arizona would be back on the map.

“That’s a big statement to say … you own it and to get this far is something very special,” he said. “We’re very proud of her. She’s a special daughter and I couldn’t ask for anything better. I am so proud of everybody. They bonded together and this was a special run this year. I will forever in my heart hold this dear to me.”

As he spoke Sunday night, Aaron McDonald was wearing a T-shirt with his daughter’s photo and “Aari” plus a heart. A Stanford fan walked up to him and said, “My team won, but I love that girl.”

She’s not the only one.

Defending the shot

McDonald uncorked the last-second shot from beyond the arc as three Stanford players were collapsing on her.

In that second or two before it hit the back of the rim, did Stanford think it was going in?

“I had no idea. I was just like, ‘Oh, please, God, don’t go in,” Stanford’s Haley Jones said. “… Honestly you never know. She’s made some wild shots because she’s just that great. You hope it doesn’t go in. I didn’t really have an idea. When the buzzer went off, I didn’t really realize what happened. I think if you go back and watch, I stood there for a second. It hadn’t clicked that we actually just won and the shot didn’t go in.

“I really had no thoughts. My mind was completely blank when she shot the ball. There’s three people there, that’s all you can do. It not up to us any more at that point.”

The big numbers

Usually, the numbers tell the tale. This time, they tell an interesting story.

Arizona’s defense forced 21 turnovers Sunday, 12 coming on steals. However, the Wildcats only scored 12 points off those turnovers. The numbers were a marked shift from earlier in the tournament, when they beat Stony Brook (25 turnovers leading to 25 points), BYU (15 turnovers leading to 20 points), Texas A&M (19 turnovers leading to 28 points) and UConn (12 turnovers leading to 14 points).

“I think we definitely didn’t convert on the turnovers,” Barnes said. “I think we were just taking some quick shots. I think taking some forced shots. But those shots had been falling prior to this game. They just didn’t fall today.”

Arizona also missed five of the 18 free throws it attempted. The Wildcats went 3 for 5 in the second quarter, 5 for 6 in the third and 5 for 7 in the fourth. McDonald went 3 for 4 down the stretch.

Then there was the shooting percentage: UA shot just 28.8%.

“We were missing a lot around the rim, a lot of chippies, a lot of floaters, pull-ups. Just taking the shots off balance. Those are things we don’t convert on,” Barnes said. “If we had to turn them over 21 times, we have to be able to convert. If you would tell me we would lose down by 20 rebounds on the boards, shoot 28%, I would have told you we would have lost by 30.

“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 down to the missed free throws down the stretch, the foul on the 3-point shot, getting the turnovers and not converting. It’s those things. It’s never the last play.”

Rim shots

  • UA guard Madi Conner took in the tournament run as a 17-year-old freshman, who — as her mom, Michelle, said — “wasn’t really supposed to be here.”

Conner graduated high school in January, four months early, and enrolled at the UA to help the Wildcats down the stretch. She earned minutes in February and in the Pac-12 Tournament, and played five minutes against Stony Brook, hitting a 3-pointer and grabbing a steal.

“I’m so glad she made this decision to come early,” Michelle Conner said.

UA shot just 27% from 3-point range Sunday, wile Stanford shot 29%. McDonald made four 3s, however; she finished the tournament with 22 made 3s in six games.