UA women’s hoops: Aari stays, says ‘Best is yet to come’

It’s probably safe to assume that Adia Barnes is breathing easier these days.

The University of Arizona women’s basketball coach had been holding her breath since season’s end, waiting to find out whether the heartbeat of her program would be back for another year.

Last week, Aari McDonald announced that she had decided to return to the Wildcats for her senior season, rather than put her name into the 2020 WNBA draft.

The collective sigh of relief from Barnes and the team’s fans in Tucson could be felt all the way to Phoenix.

Arizona finished the regular season 24-7 overall and 12-6 in Pac-12 play, marking the program’s best season in more than a decade.

Without Aari McDonald that would not have happened. Her 596 total points were 173 more than the second-highest scorer, 6’2″ sophomore forward Cate Reese. And McDonald, who stands just 5’6″, had more rebounds (162) than everyone else on the team, except for Reese’s 231 boards. That comes from hustle and commitment.

There were so many examples this season of what the transfer from Washington meant to its overall success. Consider this:

For the first time in 20 years, the Wildcats swept their annual two-game conference series with Arizona State. In the first game, McDonald’s team-high 20 points led to a 58-53 win over ASU, marking the first time since 2000 that an Arizona team has won in Tempe.

In the second rivalry meeting, the youngster took over the game in Tucson, scoring 24 points and adding 11 rebounds, four assists, and four steals to the day’s work. It also marked the 58th straight game in which McDonald had scored in double figures – the longest active streak in the nation,.

And then there was the historic upset of No. 4 Stanford in late February, the first time in school history that an Arizona women’s team beat a top-five team.

The redshirt junior put the game on her back in the final frame of regulation, scoring 13 of her 20 points in the fourth quarter to push the game into overtime. And then she nailed the game-winning shot with eight seconds remaining in OT to clinch the 73-72 victory.

The Cats made it to the second round of the Pac-12 Tournament before falling to No. 3 Oregon. But McDonald did all she could to try to carry her team into the next round, scoring 34 points that included four 3-pointers, and also grabbing five rebounds and dishing out five assists.

That was the last game played before the NCAA cancelled the rest of the postseason, including the NCAA Tournament, as a precaution against the coronavirus threat.

But McDonald made the most of the time they had. She led the Pac-12 in points and steals per game for the second straight season since arriving from Washington as a sophomore, the first player to accomplish that feat.

It’s important to also point out that this no one-dimensional star. McDonald was also named the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year.

And her exciting style of play has helped bring the fans back into McKale Center. The attendance has steadily risen since McDonald took to the floor in her first season last year, culminating in 14,644 fans at the final game, when the Cats won the WNIT. That was not only a new school attendance record, but also the largest crowd in the history of Pac-12 women’s basketball.

This year, the second rivalry game with ASU drew 10,160 enthusiastic fans – the most to ever watch the two teams play each other.

Early this month, McDonald was named one of the 10 WBCA All-Americans for this season, becoming the school’s first-ever All-American in the women’s program.

And just a few days later, she was awarded the Ann Meyers Drysdale Award as the top shooting guard in the country. She is the first player in school history to win one of the five Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame women’s positional awards.

She finished the season 10th in the nation in scoring and has scored in double figures for 66 consecutive games.

“I’m already counting down the days until I can get back on the court with my teammates,” says the native of Fresno, Calif. “And I can’t wait to play one more season in front of the best fans in the country.

“Stay tuned, because the best is yet to come.”

(Photo: Arizona Athletics/ Mike Mattina)