When Aarion McDonald took the court for the first time as an Arizona Wildcat last November, it had been a while since college fans had seen her play. But the redshirt sophomore quickly re-introduced herself.
In her first game, vs. Idaho State, the Fresno, Calif. native scored 22 points and grabbed 10 rebounds. Four nights later against Loyola Marymount, McDonald notched an astounding 39 points. For the final four match ups to close out the month, she scored 25, 32, 15 and 24 points, respectively. And she kept going.
Until conference play began, McDonald was the top scorer in Division I, averaging around 28 points per game. Though she has cooled to an average 24.8, that is still good enough for third in the nation and first in the Pac-12.
What’s more, as has gone McDonald, so have the Wildcats this season, stepping out of the Pac-12 basement they have lived in for most of the last decade or so. They were undefeated until Jan. 6, have a 17-8 overall record and are solidly in the middle of conference standings at 7-7.
Arizona coach Adia Barnes gives McDonald a lot of credit.
“I think she’s definitely one of the best guards in the country,” Barnes said. “For us, she’s extremely important. She’s our catalyst on offense and defense. … Not too many great offensive players are great players defensively. I think she does both things very well.”
McDonald, who is usually cracking a smile when she’s not playing, showed flashes of brilliance as a freshman at the University of Washington. She averaged 9.3 points per game behind only Kelsey Plum, who was drafted into the WNBA that spring with the first pick, and star forward Chantel Osahor. When Barnes, who was an assistant for the Huskies, left to take the job at her alma mater, McDonald decided to follow.
Waiting out her mandatory transfer year, however, was challenging.
“Sitting out was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do,” McDonald said.
So she kept herself busy building her game.
Assistant coach Salvo Coppa, who works with the Wildcat guards, said McDonald put a lot of work into her shooting. And it shows.
“She has a good shot and shoots well from three-point range,” Coppa said. “A lot of teams can’t contain her, so they sag off of her. And it’s hard to beat her playing one-on-one, because she’s so fast.”
McDonald has also become a more complete player since she arrived, averaging 6.7 rebounds, 4.2 assists and almost three steals per game this season.
“She is impressive because she’s not only an impact player in scoring, but she’s our second-best rebounder,” Coppa said. “And she is very good defensively. On both sides of the court – offensively and defensively – she is a threat.”
Perhaps more importantly, McDonald has learned to guide a team.
“She’s working hard, and she’s grown in her leadership,” Coppa said. “She’s been working very hard, and it’s paying off.”
McDonald takes the mantle very seriously.
“I know that my teammates follow me,” she said. “I know that I have to set the example and they’ll follow. (I’m responsible) to get my team going, bring the energy, get us going on defense and offense and get my teammates involved.”
Finding her fit
Arizona’s revival is the latest step in McDonald’s basketball journey. After transferring from Bullard High School in Fresno to Brookside Christian High School in Stockton, she had to sit out her sophomore season due to transfer rules. She quickly got recruiting interest upon her return, and eventually committed to the Huskies. But when head coach Mike Neighbors left for the Arkansas Razorbacks job, Barnes got the job at her alma mater, and McDonald decided to follow her there. She has never looked back.
“I feel like this is the place to be,” McDonald said. “I also wanted to stay in a competitive conference. I play with girls that bring the best out of me.”
Mother Andrea McDonald was the standout’s first hoops coach, and said that each time her daughter has transferred, it fueled her.
“That gave her motivation to say, ‘OK, I need to work on this and do this so, by the time I hit the court again, I’m up and running,’” Andrea McDonald said.
So far, so good.
McDonald became the fastest player in school history to reach 500 points in a season, in just 20 games. She is on track to break the single-season scoring record of 653 points, set by Barnes, and she is also on pace to catch Barnes’s all-time scoring record. McDonald has torched the nets for 20-plus points in 20 games this season.
“She’s so fun to work with. The other kids love her because she’s always positive and she’s a hard worker,” Coppa said.
It would be easy for someone with McDonald’s talents to take over games on a regular basis. But Coppa said she’s not that kind of player.
“Even though she’s grown so much. she’s not someone who doesn’t want to involve her team,” Coppa said. “The team really appreciates her attracting the defense and then looking to get them assists by passing out.”
Andrea McDonald said her daughter has always been that way.
“Her dedication to the game and her (teammates) is really a good thing, because you don’t have that most places. They want to get theirs, per se,” she said. “(She wants to) not just be great, but make everybody around her great.”
Barnes, who recruited McDonald to Washington, said her character makes her a solid athlete.
“If you care about her and believe in her, she’ll run through a wall for you. That’s what makes a great player,” Barnes said. “You can look in her eye. She’s a competitor. I don’t know anybody else who’s as competitive as she is. And she’s also a great kid, so she’s great in the locker room.”
Another marker of McDonald’s value is that her drive to grow never stops.
“I’m not done getting better, but I’ve definitely seen some improvements from my freshman year,” she said. “Just getting to play for Arizona, it means a lot.”
“Toughness and competitiveness, I want to leave that behind. Before I leave Arizona, I don’t want to have any weaknesses. I just want to have all strengths, be the best shape I’ve ever been in. Just coming in and killing it.”
With two more weeks of regular-season play before the Pac-12 Tournament, the Wildcats’ postseason destiny is still up in the air. But McDonald said she wants to put her school on the map by the time she finishes her career there.
“For the program, (I want to) take this place somewhere it’s never been,” she said. “Before I leave this campus, I want to get this program a Pac-12 Conference title, and also win the Pac-12 Tournament, hopefully.”
Sue Favor contributed to this report