Sometimes the stories write themselves.
Playing in what could be their final game in McKale Center, Arizona’s star seniors made history as they led the Wildcats to a 75-53 win over Washington on Sunday.
Sam Thomas had a season-high 20 points and swished a career-high six 3-pointers to help Arizona set a single-game record for 3-point percentage (.750). The Wildcats shot a scorching 12 for 16 behind the arc after making nine of their first 10 treys out of the gate.
“My teammates always tell me to shoot the ball more, so I just felt like on Senior Night I might as well go crazy,” Thomas laughed.
Fellow senior Aari McDonald, the best player in program history, also had 20 points, her 82nd straight game scoring in double figures. Grad transfer Trinity Baptiste had seven points.
All three seniors are eligible to return next season but none have committed one way or another yet. UA coach Adia Barnes conceded that McDonald is likely gone to the WNBA, but expects one or two seniors to return and is going to recruit McDonald, Thomas and Baptiste like they are top recruits in the county.
They immediately showed why on Sunday, accounting for Arizona’s first 17 points.
Baptiste scored all seven of her points in the first quarter. McDonald drained a 3 to put Arizona up 29-19 midway through the second quarter and Thomas buried her third triple of the first half to put the Wildcats up 37-24 at the break. They led by double figures the entire second half.
“The message was just to have fun,” McDonald said. “This is our last home game here. We’ll still be practicing but we just want to have fun and just leave it all on a court and I think that we did that today.”
Junior Cate Reese had 12 points, her fourth straight game scoring in double figures. Shaina Pellington had 11 points off the bench, her third time scoring in double figures.
Freshman midyear enrollee Madi Conner made her UA debut in the second quarter, playing alongside the three seniors, a passing of the torch of sorts.
In a normal year the 10th-ranked Wildcats would be on track to host postgame games in McKale Center, but the coronavirus pandemic caused the entire NCAA Tournament to move to San Antonio.
Maybe the seniors will return next season, but if this was their last time stepping on Lute & Bobbi Olson court, they sure made it a day to remember.
McDonald touched the center court logo after checking out for the final time and the seniors were commemorated after the game with a tribute video, flowers and a framed jersey.
“I was just thinking about my journey really, like everything I’ve been through,” said Baptiste, who was in tears after the game. “Even growing up as a kid, nothing has come easy for me but specifically in college, just deciding to come here and spend my last year here at Arizona is like the best decision that I made. So I’m just happy about it and I was just thanking Coach Adia for giving me the opportunity to come here.”
The seniors hung around on the court after the game to snap photos with their families. Parents were allowed in McKale Center for Senior Weekend, even though it does make the players more likely to catch the coronavirus.
“It does compromise us a little but, but I just felt it was the right thing to do because they’re not getting what their true experience should be,” Barnes said.
While McDonald could not be sent off by sell-out crowd like she should have been, her time at Arizona has been even better than she could have imagined. After transferring in from Washington, she has put Arizona on the map while becoming UA’s fourth all-time leading scorer and its first-ever first-team All-American.
“Coming here, they were at the bottom of the Pac-12 and just to see our growth and where we are right now, it’s is crazy to me and it says a lot about the coaches and the faith they have and a confidence they have in us,” McDonald said. “That’s what I take from our last time here.”