It came down to the final shot. Aari McDonald, who was phenomenal all tournament for the Wildcats, had one last opportunity with 5.5 seconds remaining.
As she caught the pass off the in bounds near half court, she was swarmed by multiple white jerseys. She created just enough space to get off one last look. On a fading three, the ball hit the back rim and out. Adia Barnes group was one shot away from a national title, as No. 1 Stanford survived in a 54-53 thriller in the National Championship game.
— NCAA Women’s Basketball (@ncaawbb) April 5, 2021
“If you look at the game, Aari was the one scoring and that was my decision as a coach. I knew Aari was going to be doubled,” said Barnes of the final play. “…They forced us to catch the ball really high and then when Aari went to the drive downhill…she was pretty much triple teamed and couldn’t go downhill. At the end of the day, we’ve been on Aari’s back for the whole tournament so she’s got to take that shot. Unfortunately, it still had a chance to go in, but I still have to put the ball in her hands in that situation because she’s one of the reasons why we’re here.”
McDonald, who was bottled up in the first half, came alive in the final 20 minutes to help lead her team back. Facing a stout Cardinal defense, she finished with 22 points on 5-20 shooting. She made much of her offense at the charity stripe, going 8-12 at the line as she continued to attack and not let off the gas.
Down 16-5 in the first quarter and shooting just 2-14 from the field, the Wildcats dug in defensively and continued to fight throughout the game. Arizona went on a run and eventually grabbed a 21-20 lead with under five minutes remaining in the first half.
They primarily did it without McDonald’s scoring presence as well, as the All-American only put up two points during that span.
Nevertheless, her teammates stepped up, with Trinity Baptiste, Cate Reese, and Shaina Pellington helping to lead the early comeback. Pellington finished with 15 points in 30 minutes of action to help her star teammate in the back court.
Both teams wouldn’t let up and it was a nail-biter throughout with momentum shifts at every turn. At the half, Stanford led 31-24. Going into the locker room, McDonald was held to just 2-11 shooting.
Once more in the third quarter, Stanford would go on a run before Arizona clawed back. The Cardinal went on an 11-0 run in the third quarter, but the Wildcats would respond with a 9-0 run themselves over the final minutes, setting the stage for a three-point Cardinal lead going into the fourth with a national title on the line.
McDonald cut the game to one with a big three late in the game. After a failed possession for the Cardinal, McDonald’s last-second heave would fall just short.
Arizona’s captivating March Madness run ended in heartbreak, but it does nothing to deter the efforts of this year’s Wildcat team. They were just one shot away from the program’s first-ever National Championship, and the future is as bright as ever with Barnes at the helm.
“What I’ll remember most about (this team) is how strong they are. No matter what situation you put us in with adversity, myself, my teammates, and the coaches, we always fought,” McDonald said. “It’s a good group of ladies that I played with and what I’ll remember most is this ride. We had a great run in the NCAA Tournament. We accomplished a lot that many didn’t think we could do and it was tough, but I’m proud of my teammates.”