Aari McDonald came back for another season at Arizona to do something special. Adia Barnes returned to her alma mater as coach for the same reason.
How sweet it is for McDonald, the reigning Pac-12 player of the year, and the current coach who was the league’s top player in 1998, the only other time the Wildcats got this far in the women’s NCAA Tournament.
McDonald had 17 points and 11 rebounds, along with a game-sealing steal, and Arizona outlasted BYU 52-46 on Wednesday night to advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time since Barnes’ senior season.
“Aari came back, came on a mission,” said Barnes, in her fifth season coaching the Wildcats and under contract through 2025-26. “She decided to not go pro. … She wanted to leave her mark, leave her legacy and take this team on her back and take us to great things. And she’s done that.”
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The third-seeded Wildcats (18-5) are in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2005. They would have made it last season, when they were 24-7 before the tourney was canceled because of the pandemic.
Arizona finally went ahead to stay on a 3-pointer by Sam Thomas with 3:47 left, not long after McDonald’s 3 cut their deficit to one. No. 11 seed BYU (19-6) had matched its biggest lead of the game on a layup by Shaylee Gonzales with just over five minutes left.
“I looked up at the clock and I was like, ‘OK, we’re up four. We’ve got five minutes left. We can do it.’ I totally believed in my team. … It’s very frustrating to have that lead and to lose it,” Gonzales said. “Lots of people thought that we didn’t deserve to be in this NCAA Tournament, but I hope these couple of games really proved to everyone what kind of team we are.”
Second-team All-American McDonald capped the Mercado Region game when she stole the ball from Gonzales, the co-West Coast Conference player of the year, and drove for a layup with 3 seconds left.
“Definitely didn’t want to end my season, didn’t want to go home,” McDonald said. “I’m proud of this team because the year before we would have got rattled. … But we were cool, calm and collected. We came together and we played together.”
The Wildcats stayed on the court at UTSA for more than 15 minutes after they finished to watch the Texas A&M-Iowa State game on the video board to see who they would play in the Sweet 16. They left the court when that game went to overtime, before the Aggies won 84-82.
Texas native Cate Reese had 12 points for Arizona, and Trinity Baptiste had 11 rebounds before fouling out.
Gonzales had 16 points for BYU. Tegan Graham had 13.
DIFFERENT AS A COACH
Asked how different the feeling was to get to the Sweet 16 as a coach as opposed to when she did it as a player, Barnes responded, “coaching is a lot harder than playing. Because as a player, you’re kind of oblivious to a lot of things. You just kind of go out and play.”
Barnes said it is also more meaningful and gratifying, getting to watch the players being rewarded for their hard work.
Arizona went ahead in the third quarter after an impressive spurt by Reese, the 6-foot-2 forward and first McDonald’s All-American to play at Arizona after a standout prep career in Cypress, Texas — almost 200 miles from San Antonio. Reese screamed going back down the court after a tiebreaking 3-pointer from the top of the key. After a three-point play by Gonzales put BYU up by one, Reese took an inbound pass and cut back inside for a strong layup, and added another 3 soon after getting whistled for a 3-second violation.
NO SWEET FINISH
BYU went to the Sweet 16 in coach Jeff Judkins’ first season in 2002, and again in 2014, but missed a chance to get there again.
The Cougars may have been the last team put in the 64-team field after a last-second loss to Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference Tournament championship game. The Cougars opened the NCAA tourney with a 69-66 upset of Rutgers, with Gonzales making the last of her six straight free throws with 13.4 seconds left.