Aari McDonald deserves significant credit for her defensive prowess that matches her offensive game in leading Arizona to the national title game.
There’s a lot of strong defense too, though, that comes from the rest of the Wildcats roster.
On Friday night, Arizona held UConn to 59 points on 36 percent shooting, and the Wildcats have held seven of their last eight opposing teams under 40 percent.
“Definitely you’ve seen that on display tonight,” McDonald said. “UConn, that’s a powerhouse. I mean, it doesn’t get any better than that.”
With McDonald leading, other elements of the defense have had chances to succeed. The Wildcats had the seventh best defense in the nation all season. Cate Reese had three steals against the Huskies, and Lauren Ware had a block off the bench.
In a 10-point win over UConn, 12 of Arizona’s points came off turnovers. Behind McDonald, the rest of the Wildcats defense has flourished.
Going into Friday night’s semifinal against No. 1 seed UConn, Arizona Coach Adia Barnes talked about how confidence might play a factor for her opponents, including Coach Geno Auriemma.
“It’s really important because UConn has been there so many times,” Barnes had said. “Coach Auriemma is a legend. It’s kind of a shock when he doesn’t go to the Final Four and win a championship. He’s just done an amazing job. One of the best coaches there is. They’re a confident team because it’s chartered territory. It’s unchartered for us. This is something they’re used to.”
After the game, though, it was Auriemma who said he felt his young group was too immature for the moment. That certainly was a factor, as the older Wildcats held on at the end, but Barnes’ coaching deserved credit as well given how she managed her star, Aari McDonald, and the other players around her.
After reaching the championship game, Barnes said her success was particularly important because only a few Black women have coached teams to the Final Four and beyond.
“I represent a lot of different things, but representation matters, opportunities matter. When we’re given an opportunity, we can flourish,” Barnes said. “I was given an opportunity by an athletic director that believed in a young coach that had only been coaching five years. This is only my fifth-year as a head coach. I was a five-year assistant, a 13-year pro.”
Some of the players who have starred in this N.C.A.A. tournament are ready for a step up to the W.N.B.A.
On Saturday, players who were eliminated before the Final Four faced a deadline to declare for the draft (those in the Final Four get an extra 48 hours after their teams finish their season). The deadline has prompted a big decision, because athletes are being granted an extra year of college eligibility because of the coronavirus pandemic.
On Sunday, the league released a list of 52 names of players who have declared themselves for the draft.
Those already declared who had strong tournaments include Charli Collier of Texas, the projected top pick, Louisville’s Dana Evans, U.C.L.A.’s Michaela Onyenwere and Baylor’s DiDi Richards. All are expected to be high selections in the two-round draft.
Out of the Final Four teams, UConn’s Evina Westbrook and South Carolina’s LeLe Grissett could declare, along with Arizona senior Aari McDonald. McDonald especially has raised her draft stock by taking Arizona to the national championship game and scoring big in her last three games.
Maryland players Katie Benzan and Chloe Bibby were possibilities who didn’t declare, along with Indiana’s Ali Patberg.
For all the hype around the Big Ten this season, it’s a team from the Pac-12 Conference that will hoist a national championship trophy.
“In the Pac-12 we’ve been saying all along we have the best teams in the country, and to have two Pac-12 teams speaks for itself,” Arizona coach Adia Barnes said. “Stanford won the Pac-12 championship and we were second. Both of us in the Final Four and championship game, it means a lot for our conference.”
It will be the first time since 1992 that a national title will come from the Pac-12, which, aside from Stanford’s tremendous run this season, did not appear to be a serious threat from multiple teams. The Big Ten, led by Maryland along with Michigan, Michigan State, Rutgers, Iowa, and an upstart Indiana, garnered more national attention.
Among those Big Ten teams, only Indiana made it deeper than the round of 16, when it upended a No. 1 seed, North Carolina State. Arizona knocked out the Hoosiers in the round of 8.
The Big 12 had some strong showings with Baylor and Texas, but they were eliminated before the Final Four.
In the regular season for the last conference standing, Stanford finished first in the regular season while Arizona finished second. Stanford won the conference tournament, and also beat the Wildcats twice in the regular season — both times by double digits.
“I’m really proud of the Pac-12 to have two teams in the national championship game,” Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer said. “You know, this is not something that a lot of people could have imagined, 10 years ago, 15 years ago, 20 years ago. And it’s really, really exciting.”
Aari McDonald, the Pac-12 player of the year, has owned the Alamodome’s floors, scoring at least 26 points in each of the past three games. She is lithe yet powerful, cutting through defenses and outrunning those who try to contain her.
While she is often most effective when penetrating defenses, she is also dangerous from the outside: McDonald has been shooting almost 42 percent from beyond the arc in the postseason.
And she is a formidable defender, often stealing the ball and converting turnovers into points. She has also had more than five defensive rebounds in each of the past four games.
“She’s really underrated on defense,” Barnes said after the national semifinal. “I thought in my mind she should have been the national defensive Player of the Year. There was no other player that impacts the game on both ends of the floor more.”
Both of these teams employ a lot of ball pressure and have the length to cover the floor.
Stanford and Arizona are the best in the Pac-12 at defending shots. Arizona held UConn, with its typically high-octane offense, to its lowest-scoring game of the season in the national semifinals. Stanford has been protecting the rim with a combination of Cameron Brink, Fran Belibi and Anna Wilson.
“Usually defensively one of our strengths is our guard defense,” Stanford Coach Tara VanDerveer said. “Anna Wilson has been a lockdown defender for us all year.”
And neither team is afraid to foul or be fouled.
“Trapping Aari is very difficult,” Arizona Coach Adia Barnes said of Arizona’s leading contributor on Friday, Aari McDonald. “I think she did a good job of drawing fouls. Aari got fouled nine times in the game.”
With solid defenders congesting the paint, it is a good thing neither team fears shooting from outside.
Though it has taken Arizona a bit longer to get comfortable shooting from deep, the Wildcats have landed 42 3-pointers in this tournament, shooting 34 percent. Stanford set a record in its win over South Carolina for made 3-pointers in the tournament with 56. UConn set the previous record of 54 in 2015. The Cardinal were 5 of 8 on 3-pointers on Friday night.
And Stanford has plenty of players who can shoot: Kiana Williams is one of the Cardinal’s most reliable shooters, landing a 3-pointer in every game she had played since early January until Friday night. Despite that lapse, leading scorers Haley Jones and Lexie Hull were perfect on 3-point shots.
“My teammates see me shoot at practice, I feel confident,” Jones said after winning the semifinal. “They just kind of instill their confidence in me when I don’t have it in myself.”
Though Stanford has prevailed in two previous matchups with Arizona this season, Arizona Coach Adia Barnes is unafraid after coming this far.
“They’ve beat us twice this year: They have to beat us a third time,” she said.