Historic win: UA women advance to first NCAA Elite Eight

The Wildcat women put on a clinic in defense and added a powerful display of three-point shooting to record the biggest win in the history of the University of Arizona women’s basketball program.

A 74-59 win last night over No. 2 seed Texas A&M put the Arizona women’s basketball team into the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament, the first UofA women’s team to reach that lofty level.

The 56-42 win against BYU to reach the Sweet Sixteen marked the first time an Arizona team has reached that plateau since 1998, when head coach Adia Barnes was a player in the program.

Last night, a trapping defense that never let up, going wire to wire, forced 19 Aggie turnovers.  And over-the-top shooting from downtown resulted in 13 made three-point attempts, a season high for a team that has been averaging five treys a game this season.

Add to that a season-high 31 points from the senior who has led this team to the rarified air that puts it within a win of reaching the Promised Land for any program, the Final Four.  Aari McDonald (middle in photo above) scored 19 of her points in the first half and five straight in the final minute to help the Cats to a 35-32 lead at halftime.

“We’ve been on her back all season,” Barnes said after the game, referring to the way the 5’6″ point guard has scored in double digits for every one of the last 90 games.

“She’s carried us for the last three years,” her coach added, especially thankful now that McDonald chose to return for her senior season after giving serious consideration last year to entering the WNBA draft.  McDonald transferred into the Arizona program after a season at the University of Washington and sat out a season, per NCAA transfer rules.

McDonald hit back-to-back shots from behind the arc to propel the Wildcats to a 14-point lead with a minute left to play in the third quarter, a lead they would not relinquish the rest of the way.  McDonald finished with a season-high 31 points.

At the same time, an aggressive defense, also led by the revved-up McDonald, the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, held the Aggies scoreless for the previous five minutes.  Arizona took a 59-46 lead into the final quarter and never let the Aggies get closer than 10 points from there on.

Five different Arizona players contributed points from the three-point line as the team hit 44.8 percent (13-for-29) of their long-range efforts.  McDonald made six of her 12 attempts, a career high, while Sam Thomas made three and Cate Reese chipped in a couple more.

But this was perhaps the best defensive effort this season by the Cats.  The 19 turnovers were quickly turned into 28 points.  It was like the Aggies broke open a hive of swarming red bees that chased them all over the court for the full 40 minutes.

“We are a very good defensive team, we’re going to grind you out,” said Barnes in the post-game analysis.  “We felt A&M hadn’t been pressured like we could pressure.”  Looks she was right.

Her high-octane point guard also had a few words to add:

“We are peaking at the right time.  We are ready to make more history.”

That chance at a Final Four appearance comes tomorrow against No. 5 Indiana.  The Hoosiers are another team riding high after upsetting top-seeded North Carolina State to get to the Elite Eight.

It will require the intensity of their last performance if the Wildcats are to get past Indiana, which also seems to be peaking at the right time.

Should be an exciting game, with so much riding on the outcome for both teams.  It is also the Hoosiers’ first appearance in the Elite Eight.

(Photo: Arizona Athletics)