The Arizona Wildcats clinched their first Sweet Sixteen since 1998 on Wednesday by staving off the 11-seeded BYU Cougars 52-46 in the Round of 32. The Wildcats will face No. 2-seeded Texas A&M on Saturday at 5 p.m. PT with a trip to their first-ever Elite Eight on the line.
Here are some takeaways from Wednesday’s win.
This is March and only one thing matters
I could sit here and write about how Arizona posted one of their worst shooting percentages of the season. How they blew easy layups. How they missed five straight free throws. How, for 35 minutes, they were so out of sync offensively that it made you want to gouge your eyes out.
But it’s March and the only thing that matters is Arizona survived and advanced—and showed the heart of a champion while doing it.
After missing nine straight shots, they trailed BYU 43-39 with five minutes left. Their season, and everything they endured during this COVID season, was on the brink.
Rather than folding, they fought back.
Aari McDonald and Sam Thomas immediately hit back-to-back 3s out of a timeout to re-take the lead. Sophomore Helena Pueyo built on it by burying a pull-up jumper, picking a prime time to score her only points of the game.
After a 3 pulled BYU back within one, grad transfer Trinity Baptiste somehow batted an offensive rebound out to McDonald, who collected it and knifed for a layup.
Thomas hit a clutch free throw after forcing a miss and McDonald, in a hallmark moment, put the game on ice with a steal and score to finish with 17 points and 11 rebounds.
Not only did her nine fourth-quarter points extend her historic double-digit scoring streak to 88 games, they ensured she can keep adding to it.
“I think for a while we were just kind of exchanging baskets or neither team was scoring and then every time we went on a run, they kind of came up with 50-50 balls in the third quarter,” head coach Adia Barnes said. “So we said in the fourth quarter they can’t do that. We had to have all the passion plays, and I think that Aari and the starters or whoever’s on the court, they did a really good job of taking our defense up a notch down the stretch. We saw steals and Aari converted a couple steals. We just found a way. It wasn’t our best game but we did the necessary plays to win and that’s all that matters.
“I told our team before we even came here that the toughest team mentally, and the teams that can handle adversity and handle being locked in, handle things being different, are probably the teams are going to be more successful. We’ve seen all kinds of upsets. It’s a different year, but this team is resilient. This team is not ready to go home and we’re here to win some games and I’m confident we can go a lot further.”
McDonald had a legacy-defining game
McDonald turned down the WNBA Draft last summer so she could lead Arizona on a deep NCAA Tournament run, the one they were robbed of last year because of the pandemic. So the fact that Shaylee Gonzales, her BYU counterpart, outscored her in the first half of a do-or-die game didn’t sit well with her.
“I had to lock in,” McDonald said. “Personally in the first half, I feel like I did not help my teammates. I was not a threat on the defensive end. I did not cancel out Shaylee Gonzales like I wanted to, and to credit her she’s a great player…so really just second half I just had to tell myself, ‘Hey, you got to take it personal. She’s not going to score on you. Don’t even let her touch the ball.’”
True to her word, McDonald buckled down and helped hold Gonzales to five points, two turnovers and zero assists the rest of the way, a big reason Arizona was able to get just enough stops down the stretch. McDonald’s defensive mettle, plus her timely baskets, were legacy-defining moments for her. They put her on the doorstep of leading the Wildcats to their first-ever Elite Eight.
“She decided to come back because 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,” Barnes said. “Great players shine at the right time.”
Cate kept Arizona afloat
There is no fourth-quarter comeback without Cate Reese’s third-quarter heroics.
Arizona trailed by two at the half and bricked 12 straight shots from the end of the second quarter to the early parts of the third quarter. (Yeah, I wasn’t kidding about the whole gouging-your-eyes-out thing.)
Their defense was holding tight, but they needed somebody—anybody!—to hit a dang shot.
The junior forward came to the rescue, drilling a big 3 that gave Arizona their first lead of the second half.
“LET’S GO!” Reese hollered.
The next possession, she caught an inbounds pass near the corner, spun baseline and finished off the glass for an and-one. She screamed again, then scored again.
Reese swished another 3 to put Arizona up 36-32 late in the third, what turned out to be their last field goal for more than seven minutes.
Where would they be right now if she didn’t go off?
“When she’s hot, she stays hot, so it was nice to have her hit the first 3,” Thomas said. “And then as soon as she shot the second one, you knew right away that it was going in. Those are some big 3s for us and we hope to see it next round and hopefully the more rounds to come.”
Because of the journey to get here, this Sweet Sixteen will be sweeter than those to come
Given the upward trajectory of Arizona women’s basketball, the Wildcats are going to be a fixture in the postseason for years to come. But Barnes couldn’t be happier that Reese, Thomas and McDonald—the OG3, as they’re called—get the first taste of NCAA Tournament success.
All three took a leap of faith to join the Wildcats. Thomas committed in Barnes’ first year when all Arizona could offer was the vision of a brighter future, one that felt painfully distant when they went 6-24 in her freshman season.
McDonald had to stew on the bench that year after transferring in from Washington. She had just made the Sweet Sixteen with the Huskies but was close with Barnes and trusted that they could lead Arizona there one day even if the program’s history suggested otherwise.
Reese was following the Wildcats as a high school senior at the time and could have signed with a number of prestigious programs, including Texas A&M.
She probably would have made the Sweet Sixteen as an Aggie too, but that would have been too easy. Reese wanted to do something unprecedented, so she signed on as Arizona’s first-ever McDonald’s All-American and will tell you it’s the best decision she’s ever made.
“It’s an amazing feeling,” she said after Wednesday’s win. “I mean, speaking for Sam and myself, we came here to do this, and it took an extra year but it’s a great feeling. It’s amazing just to know that we came here to leave a legacy and that’s exactly what we’re doing.”
And like the old adage says: the harder you work for something, the better you feel when you achieve it.
“It is more important to win with these players,” Barnes said. “It’s different now. Now we’re on all the top kids’ list because we’re winning. But the players that came here and built this, they’re the foundation. The Aaris, Dominiques, Tee Tees, Amari, Sam, Cate, those players came here and believed in the vision and it’s so rewarding to stand there and celebrate with them. It’s very meaningful for me because they believed in us when no one in the country did. And so I’m just happy to celebrate with them and we are doing what we set out to do, and we believed in each other. We believed in the process and it’s not about the end result. It’s about the process and all we’ve learned along the way.”
Adia Barnes said going to the Sweet Sixteen with Aari McDonald, Sam Thomas and Cate Reese means a lot because they believed in Arizona when no one else did.
“Those players came here and believed in the vision, so it’s rewarding to stand there and celebrate with them.” pic.twitter.com/rRQaK2XIhs
— Ryan Kelapire (@RKelapire) March 25, 2021