Arizona stunned UConn in dramatic fashion Friday, leading wire-to-wire for a 69-59 win to advance to the National Championship game.
The heavily-underestimated, No. 3 seed Wildcats scored the first six points of the matchup and never trailed, while holding the top-seeded, high-octane Husky offense in check with their stifling defense.
Aari McDonald’s aggressive play and 26 points lead the way for Arizona, while Sam Thomas and Cate Reese added 12 and 11 points, respectively. But it was defense that was the difference-maker for the upstarts.
“I think [McDonald] is really underrated on defense,” coach Adia Barnes said. “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. There is no other player that for the 37 minutes presses full court and gets steals. She disrupts things, makes it difficult. She didn’t allow (UConn’s) Paige (Bueckers) to really get in the flow at the one. I think she’s just a great defensive player, and our team feeds off her.”
McDonald made four threes in the first half, including one that was from at least 26 feet from the hoop. She drove to the rack with abandon, and harassed her opponents on the other side of the floor. The Wildcats led by ten at the half, after the third quarter, and at the final buzzer.
“Aari McDonald, I said going into the game, I don’t think we’ve had to play against a guard as good as she is, and she proved it tonight,” Husky coach Geno Auriemma said. “She just dominated the entire game start to finish.”
“We pride ourselves on being pretty good at certain things. We had no answer for her.”
From the opening tip Arizona played with poise and energy, while UConn looked unsettled by the aggressive defense that cut off all the passing lanes and harassed outside shooters. McDonald and her teammates controlled the pace, and harassed their opponents into looking like the young team that they are.
In the second half the Huskies controlled McDonald’s offense better, but it took two of their guards to do so. This left at least one Wildcat player free to score enough and maintain the lead. In the third period, when McDonald had just two points, her teammates extended the lead to 14, which was the largest deficit UConn had faced all season.
Even when they made a push to come within five points in the fourth quarter, Arizona responded with a drives to the bucket, a forced turnover, and enough free throws to extend the lead back to ten.
The Wildcats weren’t picked to be in the Final Four, and said that being underestimated throughout the Tournament was a motivator.
“We were the underdog,” McDonald said. “I mean, we kind of felt that way all season. That kind of boosts our confidence, makes us play harder, that nobody thinks we can beat these top teams, just accomplish the things we’ve accomplished. They [UConn] were tight. My teammates have been playing free this whole tournament. I mean, hey, we’re made for it, like coach says.”
Christyn Williams, who led the Huskies with 20 points, admitted they were stunned by their opponents’ skill and intensity.
“I think we came out with the wrong mentality,” she said. “I thought we thought it was going to be easy, I guess, and we got flustered. They had great ball pressure. It wasn’t like anything that we’ve seen before this season. We just couldn’t get in the flow offensively.”
Auriemma credited McDonald and her team.
“They played amazing,” he said. “That first half, it was incredibly difficult for us to get anything done. And I thought the intensity level that they played with and the aggressiveness on the defensive end, we just didn’t respond as I hoped we would.”
UConn hasn’t reached the national final since 2016. This is the Wildcats’ first appearance in a Final Four. They will face fellow Pac-12 rivals Stanford, who had to work hard to get past another top seed in South Carolina in the earlier semifinal.
The Cardinal beat Arizona twice in the regular season. Barnes said it helps in scouting for Sunday’s game to be familiar with the opponent, but she knows facing them will be a challenge.
“They’ve beat us twice this year. They have to beat us a third time,” Barnes said. “I mean, Stanford is so good. They have so much depth. They’re young, extremely talented, very hard to play against. It’s going to be a tough game. But at this time of the year, everything is tough.”
The game tips on ESPN at 5 p.m. CT.
Sue Favor contributed to this report