UA’s ‘Cinderella’ team falls 6 seconds short of NCAA title

A basketball season in which the UofA women not only got an invitation to the Big Dance, but proved to be the Cinderella of the ball, came down to a couple of simple statistics.

Six seconds.  That’s how close the University of Arizona women’s basketball team came to a national title.

Eight points.  That’s the team’s total output for the first quarter of yesterday’s NCAA championship game with Stanford.  The Wildcats dug themselves a hole early that they couldn’t climb out of.

That about tells the story, since the Wildcats’ shooting didn’t improve much the rest of the way as Stanford squeezed out a 54-53 win yesterday at the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas, in front of a socially-distanced crowd of 4,604.

And ‘squeezed’ is an apt description of the final 6.1 seconds on the game clock.

Arizona point guard Aari McDonald took the inbounds pass from Shaina Pellington and tried to find a path to the basket, but the Cardinal defenders were waiting for her, expecting that she would be the one chosen to take the game’s final shot.  Three defenders suffocated the 5’6″ guard above the top of the key, and even her cat-like quickness wasn’t enough to get out of the trap.  Her desperation heave clanged off the back of the rim and the game entered the NCAA history books as one of the most exciting title games ever.

This would have been Arizona’s first national championship for its women’s basketball program, under head coach Adia Barnes the last five seasons.  But this team had already made school history twice during the tournament run, becoming the first UofA women’s team to play in an Elite Eight game, and then the first to reach the Final Four.

McDonald literally carried the team through upsets of Texas A&M in the Sweet Sixteen, Indiana in the Elite Eight, and top-ranked UConn in the Final Four — beating each by double-digit scores.  She put up 33 points against the Hoosiers and 31 against UConn.

But the senior point guard had a tough time getting good looks at the basket yesterday since the Cardinal, having beaten Arizona twice already in the regular season, were ready for the sharpshooter who wrapped her college career by posting double-digit scoring in 93  straight games, the longest streak in the country.

How Aari goes, so goes Arizona.  Which is why the Wildcats got into an early hole.  McDonald started the game cold, scoring five points in the first quarter on 18 percent shooting.

McDonald finished with 22 points, but missed far more shots than she made.  She was 5-of-20 from the field and 4-of-9 from 3-point range.  Pellington was the only other Arizona player in double figures, scoring 15 points off the bench while pulling down seven rebounds.  Sam Thomas also tied for team high with seven boards.

And that was the story of the Arizona offense.  The Cats shot 28.8 percent from the field and 27.3 percent from behind the arc. They missed easy shots under the basket, suffered from poor shot selection, and failed to convert turnovers to points.

Arizona’s ninja-like defense forced 21 Stanford turnovers, but turned those into just 12 points.

Stanford’s height advantage was also a key to their win.  The Cardinal held a 47-29 rebounding advantage and were ahead 11-0 in second-chance points.

Arizona had a lead twice in the game – but only very briefly.  McDonald’s three-pointer to start the game gave the Cats a 3-2 lead, but Stanford followed up with the next 12 points and held the lead until the 4:51 mark of the first quarter when Arizona took a one-point lead at 21-10.

But that was the last time Stanford would give up the lead…or give up their first title trophy since 1992.

(Photo: Arizona Athletics)