Adia & Aari team up to lead UA women to Final Four

For years, all four of Arizona’s Pac-12 basketball coaches have been trying to take their teams to the Promised Land known as the NCAA Final Four.  One of them just made it.  And it took her just five years.

Bobby Hurley has been leading the Arizona State men’s program for six years, Charli Turner Thorne has put in 24 years as ASU head women’s coach, and Sean Miller just finished his 12th season as the University of Arizona men’s coach.  None of them has reached the Final Four.

But Adia Barnes just found the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow that all of her counterparts have been hoping to find.  In just her fifth season as UofA women’s head coach, Barnes took her No. 3-seeded Wildcats to the Final Four by defeating No. 4 Indiana in Sunday’s Elite Eight round.

However, Barnes had help that the others didn’t.  That would be a 5’6″ relative of the Energizer Bunny named Aari McDonald.  The senior point guard literally put this Wildcat team on her back and carried it through a 16-4 regular-season record and deeper into the postseason than any Arizona women’s team has gone before.

The Pac-12 Player of the Year scored 31 points against Texas A&M to get the Cats to the Elite Eight, and then another 33 against Indiana for a berth in the Final Four, the first UofA team in program history to reach that destination.

Arizona (20-5) led the entire way, but Indiana (21-6) stayed within a couple of baskets throughout the first half as the Wildcats went into the locker room ahead 27-23.  The Cats used back-to-back three-pointers midway through the fourth quarter to open the lead to 57-50, and then never looked back on the way to a 66-53 victory.

An intensely aggressive Arizona defense clamped down on the Hoosiers’ long-range shooting, limiting Indiana to 0-for-9 from behind the arc.  And on the offensive side, Trinity Baptiste gave McDonald a hand with the scoring with 12 points, the only other Wildcat in double figures.

McDonald and Baptiste also led the team in rebounds over the last two games, with McDonald pulling down 22 for both games and Baptiste collecting 21.

For McDonald, reaching the Final Four is the culmination of a three-year quest.  The Wildcats still have to stay focused on the road to the title game, which begins Friday when they take on top-seeded UConn, which just reached the Final Four for the 13th straight season by beating Baylor, 69-67, in a win that wasn’t secured until the final seconds ticked off the game clock.

But her arrival at the Final Four nonetheless validates McDonald’s decision to skip the WNBA draft to return for her senior season, with the goal of leading the Wildcats back to the Big Dance for the first time since 2005.  She has done that, and much more.

McDonald, who transferred into the UofA program from Washington after her freshman year with the Huskies, finished the regular season as the Pac-12 leader in scoring (19.4 ppg) and steals (2.7 ppg), showcasing her skills on both ends of the floor.  This is the third straight season that McDonald led in both statistics, something no other player in conference history has achieved.

For Barnes, who played her college ball at Arizona and spent seven seasons in the WNBA but had never been a head coach, this season’s success validates a difficult decision she made to take on the risky job of rebuilding a program that has languished in mediocrity for more than a decade.  In just five short years she has posted back-to-back seasons of 24 wins, coached the 2019 team to a WNIT championship, and returned the program to the national prominence it enjoyed under Joan Bonvicini, who led the program for 17 seasons before her departure in 2008..

That meteoric success Barnes has enjoyed (fastest coach in Arizona history to 75 wins) has been recognized – and rewarded – by her employer.  Her contract was extended in 2019, and again two weeks ago to run through the 2025-26 season.

Barnes and her do-everything point guard on roller skates will team up at least one more time before McDonald heads off to the pro game.  And the next step will be the biggest challenge of their three-year partnership when they attempt to topple the most successful program in the history of women’s college basketball.

For UConn, the Wildcats are just a speed bump on the way to its 12th national championship.

However, Arizona’s dynamic duo may have something to say about that.

(Photo: Arizona Athletics)