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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


Preview: Arizona women’s basketball faces Goliath, UConn in Final Four showdown

Ana Beltran
Arizona guard Aari McDonald (2) looks for an open pass due to being heavily defended by USC.

The Arizona women’s basketball team had a program-defining win against Indiana in the Elite Eight on Monday, March 29, 66-53, to go to its first Final Four in program history. 

“It means a lot,” head coach Adia Barnes said. “I think when you win, I think you have the proof that you’re doing something right and are successful. I think, in our program, our players improve.”

Their reward? A showdown with the biggest and most well-known program in the sport for a spot in the championship game.

UConn has been the standard-bearer for the entire sport of women’s college basketball. This is their 13th straight Final Four and they boast, arguably, the best player in women’s college basketball with Paige Bueckers, who’s only a freshman. 

“[Bueckers] is crafty,” Arizona guard Aari McDonald said. “She finds different ways to score, and she proved that she can score on all three levels. She moves without the ball. She shoots very efficiently, has high percentages on the court … and she’s active everywhere.”

There has been a championship “drought” for the program because they haven’t won it all since 2016. Bueckers is the clear No. 1 for the Huskies, but they also boast a supporting cast that’s led by Christyn Williams and Olivia Nelson-Ododa. 

The Huskies come in as a highly potent offense, averaging 83 points a game. They also come into the game averaging 41 rebounds a game and only allowing 30 rebounds to their opponents. This UConn team is a lot younger than typical Huskies teams of the past and could be looking to start a new dynasty.

“They’re really good in transition,” Barnes said. “They run a lot of chin actions that, fortunately for us, we’ve been able to guard all through the Pac-12 because like every Pac-12 team pretty much runs chin. But they’re just really gifted offensively.”

RELATED: Key stats in Arizona women’s basketball’s Elite Eight win over Indiana

Arizona will go as far as Aari McDonald takes them in this game. The matchup between her and Bueckers is going to be a great watch as a fan. 

“It’s really exciting. It’s a senior against a freshman,” Barnes said. “I think [Bueckers] is a phenomenal player. I watched her all through AAU. She’s so good. … She’s just amazing. I think that it’s a great matchup because they’re different athletes, are different styles, but they’re both really, really good. I think [McDonald] is excited, I’m sure [Bueckers] is excited. I think it’s great for women’s basketball.”

McDonald came out of the game against Indiana with an apparent ankle injury. It had everyone worried about how hurt she really was, but she did return and helped ice the game down the stretch. 

Another huge key for the Wildcats will be their defense. They have forced teams into 55 points a game and have been tenacious all year. 

“I think our defense this year has been phenomenal,” Barnes said. “I think our style of play is fun. I think players want to play in an exciting style. We go do that. We don’t sit back in zones, play percentages. We get out and guard you. That’s the way I loved to play as a player. That was fun. Turning people over, going in transition, that’s a fun style. I don’t think it’s fun walking up the court and playing percentages on defense. That’s what we do.”

Their defense has been led by Sam Thomas, who has continuously stuffed the stat sheet from steals to blocks and everything in-between. She has also been a sharp-shooter from three-point range and has been a key reason, along with McDonald, as to why Arizona has been averaging six three-pointers a game. 

Another player to watch for Arizona is Cate Reese. She is due for a breakout game, and this could be it, with McDonald being a huge focus for UConn. Arizona is playing with “house money” and has zero pressure coming into this game, as compared to UConn.

“I think, for us, there’s no pressure,” Barnes said. “No one expects Arizona to win a championship. No one expected Arizona to be in the Elite Eight, Sweet 16, Final Four. We don’t have anything to lose. We can play loose, free, because we don’t have the pressure. We’re just going out, we’re having fun right now. We’re playing good basketball. We’re playing for each other, enjoying the ride. We’re going to put it all on the line. We play hard. We’re not soft. We don’t take plays off. We play with our hearts. It may not be pretty, and that’s okay. We’re going to give 100%. Whatever happens at the end of that, whether we win or lose, that’s what’s meant to be.”

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