The 3-seed Arizona Wildcats, led by Aari McDonald, used their vaunted defense to knock off the 1-seed UConn Huskies, 69-59, and advance to the first National Championship in program history.
McDonald led the way for the Wildcats with a game-high 26 points. She also helped lead a defense that held AP Player of the Year Paige Bueckers to 18 points on 5-13 shooting.
Prior to this year, the Wildcats had never made it past the Sweet 16 in the history of the franchise.
Arizona’s First Punch
Quick out of the gate, the Wildcats grabbed a 9-3 lead just 4 minutes into the game. McDonald knocked down 2 early threes, accounting for 6 of those points.
Though the Huskies fought their way back into the game, they were still down 6 at the end of the first quarter.
The second quarter was more of the same from the Wildcats. McDonald hit 2 more threes and had 7 in the quarter. She made up more than half of the Wildcats’ 16 points in the second frame.
It didn’t take long for the Wildcats to assert their dominance on the defensive end. They held Bueckers to just 5 first-half points, with none in the second quarter.
The Huskies overall shot just 32% from the field, and made only 1 three the entire first half.
“We take pride in our overall defense,” McDonald said at halftime. “But most importantly, it was our individual matchups.”
McDonald’s individual matchup for much of the game was Bueckers, who she outdueled on both ends.
Huskies’ Bright Spot
Christyn Williams seemed to be the only source of consistent offense for the Huskies. At halftime, she had 12 points, more than double that of any other Husky.
Interestingly enough, Williams took no part in the team’s final run. With 3:51 remaining, and her team down 9, she picked up her fifth and final foul.
Husky fans certainly have a bone to pick with the referees, as Williams was barely involved in the play, and got all ball will swiping at McDonald’s shot attempt.
Regardless, the team’s highest scorer (finished with 20), watched the final minutes of her season from the sidelines.
The Wildcats Hold on
Bueckers got hot in the second half. Thirteen of her 18 came after halftime, and no shot was bigger than her final field goal. A left-wing, NBA-range three cut the Huskies’ deficit to just five. With 90 seconds left, the score was the closest it had been since the first quarter.
The Wildcats, however, were ready for this run and stepped up to the plate. Three different Wildcats scored in the final minute and a half to seal the win.
Cate Reese and Sam Thomas both joined McDonald in double fingers with 11 and 12, respectively. McDonald hit only one less three (4) than the entire Husky team (5). She also accounted for more than half of her team’s total points.
The 2021 NCAA Women’s Basketball National Championship game is set. The Wildcats will face off against their Pac12 rivals, Stanford.
Stanford accounts for 2 of the Wildcats’ 5 season losses. They will look to reverse their fortunes when the teams meet on Sunday night.