Aari McDonald scored 26 points and led a smothering defensive effort for Arizona as the Wildcats beat UConn 69-59 Friday night to advance to the women’s NCAAtournament championship game for the first time in school history.
The Wildcats never trailed against the favored and fabled Huskies, who have made the Final Four 13 consecutive times, but haven’t made the championship game since 2016 when UConn won its 11th title.
Arizona held UConn to a season low in points, but still had to hold on late after leading by 14 late in the third quarter as the Huskies made a late push. At the final buzzer, McDonald threw the ball high in the air and was mobbed by her teammates near center court. She shared a long hug with coach Adia Barnes, who starred as a player at the school in the late 1990s.
The win made Barnes the first coach to lead her alma mater to the championship game since Sonja Hogg guided Louisiana Tech to the first NCAA title in 1982 and was the runner-up in 1983.
Arizona (21-5) will play Stanford for the title on Sunday night in an all Pac-12 final.
“We just believed,” McDonald said. “It was that grit. We didn’t want to go home once again, and we’re proving it.”
As she has done throughout the tournament, McDonald did it all for the Wildcats with slashing drives, pinpoint shooting from long range, and a defensive intensity that held UConn’s star freshman Paige Bueckers in check in for long stretches.
Bueckers, the Associated Press national player of the year, finished with 18 points and her three-pointer with 1:23 left got UConn within 60-55 in the final two minutes before Arizona closed out the win with free throws. Christyn Williams led UConn (28-2) with 20 points before fouling out.
The two programs had met once before in the tournament, back in 1998 when Barnes was the Wildcats point guard. UConn won that matchup and now it’s Barnes and Arizona taking the next big step to a championship.
UConn, who have no seniors in the lineup, started slow as the Huskies looked tentative in the role of favorite. McDonald and the Wildcats looked primed for their moment after being left out of the NCAA’s Final Four promotional video on Twitter that had featured the three other teams but not them.
UConn had four early turnovers and missed its first five shots before Bueckers made a three-pointer to settle the offense, even if only temporarily. McDonald, opened the game with a three-pointer, made another two minutes later, and scored eight as the Wildcats led 16-10 after the first quarter.
McDonald pumped in two more from long range in the second quarter and the Wildcats led 32-22 at halftime. Bueckers was struggling to get any looks at the basket and finished the half with just four shots and three points.
McDonald cooled off in the third with just two points on two free throws. Still, Arizona briefly stretched its lead to 48-34 before UConn got a three-pointer from Evina Westbrook to help pull the Huskies back within nine to start the fourth.
Stanford 66, South Carolina 65
Haley Jones scored 24 points, including the go-ahead jumper with 32 seconds left, to help Stanford beat South Carolina 66-65 in Friday’s first national semi-final and advance to Sunday’s championship game.
It’s Stanford’s first trip to the title game since 2010, which was also in San Antonio. The Cardinal lost to UConn in that contest, 53-47.
The Cardinal (30-2) will play Arizona for the title on Sunday night. Coach Tara VanDerveer will be looking for her third national championship at the school and first since 1992.
Trailing 65-64 with 32 seconds left, Jones hit a jumper from the corner that gave the Cardinal a one-point lead. Aliyah Boston had her shot blocked, but got her own rebound. Then, with 15 seconds left, Destanni Henderson threw a pass that was stolen by Ashten Prechtel.
After an inbounds, Cameron Brink lost the ball at midcourt to Boston, giving South Carolina a chance. Brea Beal missed a driving layup and Boston’s putback at the buzzer also was off the rim, sending the Cardinal onto the court to celebrate.
Henderson had scored six consecutive points to give the Gamecocks (26-5) a 65-64 lead with 38.8 seconds left. She had a three-point play and a three-pointer.
Zia Cooke finished with 25 points to lead South Carolina.
Trailing 15-6 midway through the first quarter, Stanford scored the last nine points of the period to tie the game heading into the second. The Gamecocks missed their final six shots of the quarter and were scoreless for the final 4:48.
“We know basketball team’s have runs, so we can’t let that first quarter or the first five minutes dictate the whole game,” said Stanford’s Lexie Hull, who had 18 points and 13 rebounds.
The drought continued in the second quarter as the Gamecocks missed their first five shots and didn’t hit a field goal until Zia Cooke’s three-pointer in the quarter made it 22-20. She had hit the previous basket nearly nine and a half minutes earlier.
The Cardinal had outscored the Gamecocks 16-2 since the early deficit.
Stanford led 31-25 at the half as Prechtel picked up where she left off from the win over Louisville in the Elite Eight. She had 16 points, all in the second half, to help the Cardinal rally to beat Louisville. She had seven in the opening 20 minutes against South Carolina.
Boston had a solid first half with seven points, nine rebounds and four blocks for the Gamecocks. She finished with 11 points, 16 rebounds and four blocks.