Aari McDonald's 31-point night leads Arizona to first Elite Eight appearance in program history

Jack Baer
·3-min read
SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS - MARCH 27: Aaliyah Wilson #2 of the Texas A&M Aggies and Aari McDonald #2 of the Arizona Wildcats fight for the loose ball in the first half during the Sweet Sixteen round of the NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament at the Alamodome on March 27, 2021 in San Antonio, Texas. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Aari McDonald was all over Texas A&M. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Arizona head coach Adia Barnes was the program's first conference Player of the Year in 1998. Aari McDonald was the second, winning the award this year.

Now, both women have the Wildcats heading to the Elite Eight for the first time in program history.

Arizona, the No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament's Mercado Region, topped No. 2 seed Texas A&M 74-59 on Saturday to notch a historic win. Up next will be No. 4 seed Indiana on Monday, with a trip to the Final Four on the line.

It was naturally McDonald leading the way all night for the Wildcats. The senior guard finished with a season-high 31 points on 11-of-20 shooting (6-of-12 from deep), five rebounds and two steals.

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"Before we came out of the warm-ups, we heard we were going to get smacked, so we used it as motivation," McDonald said to ESPN after the game. "It started with me. I'm that catalyst on offense and defense. I took it personal. I didn't want to go home, and my teammates followed me. We got the job done."

Sam Thomas and Cate Reese followed with nine and eight points respectively. Reese also posted a team-high nine points, while Reese recorded five steals.

An unprecedented step for Arizona

It's safe to call Saturday the biggest win in modern program history for Arizona, with the program's biggest game now on deck. 

Arizona, playing in its first NCAA tournament since 2005, had only reached the Sweet Sixteen only one other time in its history before this season, back in 1998 when Barnes was a player. Compare that to Texas A&M, which has made the tournament 15 straight times under Women's Basketball Hall of Famer Gary Blair, reaching eight Sweet Sixteens.

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It's the latest step in a transformation under Barnes, who took over her alma mater in 2016. McDonald arrived in Tucson a year later as a transfer from Washington, after making the Pac-12 All-Freshman team. They had a lot of work to do.

"No one believed in Arizona,' Bryant said. "When Aari came to Arizona, we were like 300th in RPI. I didn't know, we didn't know, but we had faith. We had faith that one day we were going to do something special, and this young lady has done everything. We've been on her back all season."

"We believed in us. Aari and I looked at each other, we believe in each other and we believed in this. No one else did except for Obama. Everybody else didn't even consider us in this region."

The first sign of progress for Arizona was a WNIT championship in 2019, a year removed from a 6-24 season. Now, the Wildcats face Indiana in the Elite Eight, with one of them guaranteed to make a first-ever appearance in the Final Four.

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