SAN ANTONIO - Arizona asks Aari McDonald to do just about everything for the Wildcats. And just about every game, she delivers all she’s got.
McDonald scored 33 points in a dizzying display of razzle-dazzle shot making and gutsy leadership in crunch time, carrying the No. 3 seed Wildcats to a 66-53 win over No. 4 seed Indiana on March 29, sending Arizona to its first Final Four in women’s NCAA Tournament history.
"Just being a little player, I always play with a chip on my shoulder," said McDonald, who stands just 5-foot-6 but used her small frame size to slip under and around Indiana defenders or shake them off the dribble.
"A lot of people say I’m too small. I’ll never do this, I’ll never do that. That drives me," she said.
The Pac-12 player of the year controlled just about every Arizona possession, hitting the Hoosiers with slashing drives, timely rebounds and even a banked-in 3-pointer.
She briefly left the game with a twisted left ankle late in the fourth quarter but had it taped up and limped back on the court to score six more points. Her three-point play with 34 seconds left put the exclamation point on the victory.
Arizona (20-5) advanced to Friday’s national semifinal against top-seeded UConn, which reached its 13th straight Final Four when it beat No. 2 seed Baylor earlier Monday.
Wildcats coach Adia Barnes, who led the Wildcats to the Sweet 16 as a point guard in 1998, is now the sixth coach to lead her alma mater to the women’s Final Four.
Barnes has said she took a risk when she returned to coach at Arizona five years ago, when it was one of the worst programs in the Pac-12. Then McDonald transferred from Washington and the two have been not-so-quietly building the program in the desert ever since.
"Aari, I asked her to do everything. She has done everything the whole time she’s been here," Barnes. "And I’m proud of all of these young women around her. They fight and they play for her, and it’s just amazing."
McDonald topped 30 points for the second straight tournament game. She scored 31 against Texas A&M two days earlier. Against the Hoosiers, she was 12-for-20 shooting and made 5 of 6 3-pointers.
"I always want to be better than I was the day before," McDonald said.
History was going to be made whichever team won Monday night. The Hoosiers advanced past the Sweet 16 for the first time but their methodical, grinding game simply ran into a player it couldn’t match for 40 minutes.
It worked for three quarters. After pulling back from an eight-point deficit in the third behind a workhorse night from Mackenzie Holmes in the post, the Hoosiers had tied it 48-48. But a scoring drought of more than three minutes kept them from making a charge in a game Indiana led only one minute of the second in the second quarter.
Holmes scored 20 and grabbed eight rebounds to lead Indiana (21-6), and the Hoosiers tried to use her presence in the post to control the game until the late scoring problems.
Arizona made consecutive 3-pointers in the middle of the fourth quarter, the latter from Helena Pueyo off a bullet pass from McDonald, for a 57-50 lead. Pueyo made two 3-pointers in the final quarter.
"I feel like we got some good looks, we couldn’t put an exclamation point on some of them," Indiana coach Teri Moren said. "It was tough for us, but I feel like we gave it everything we got and we didn’t let up for one second. And that’s all I can ask for from my team."
The tension of the biggest night in program history for both teams showed early in a timid, ragged start as the first 10 shots of the game misfired before McDonald finally got a short jumper to fall. Once McDonald started heating up, she scored 10 of Arizona’s first 14 points.
McDonald even grabbed a game-high 11 rebounds, including one she ripped from an Indiana player’s hands for a layup to close the third quarter.
"She’s an elite player and she stepped up big time," Holmes said. "She got to the rim well, she can score on all three levels ... We gave it our best shot, but she hit a lot of tough shots on us tonight."
Indiana shot 36% and was 0 of 9 on 3-pointers. The Hoosiers were 13 of 17 on free throws but got zero points off their bench and only got eight second-chance points.