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‘Going to be Aari or nothing:’ Stanford’s defense does just enough to slow down Arizona’s superstar

SAN ANTONIO — Everybody knew who would get the ball on the final possession, with one play left to win the 2021 women’s NCAA basketball championship.

The only question that hung in the air inside the Alamodome was whether Arizona guard Aari McDonald would actually make the shot. With Stanford ahead 54-53, the fans inside the dome all stood in anticipation. One man wearing Arizona red turned to a nearby police officer and said, “Watch, they’re going to get Aari the ball off a screen.”

As Arizona guard Shaina Pellington went to inbound the ball with 6.1 seconds left and a shot at the national championship on the line, the Stanford defense was ready, immediately denying the Wildcats on the screen they set.

Finally, Pellington got her window to McDonald, but the timing was off and the ball went high. Still, even with Stanford’s Anna Wilson smothering her, McDonald caught it. McDonald dribbled forward, looking for an opening. But Lexie Hull and Cameron Brink joined in, a formidable 3-on-1 front that forced McDonald to back up and turn around to shoot, with 1 second remaining.

Miraculously, she got a decent enough look. McDonald fell backward after she let go of the ball, but her eyes stayed up. Everyone held their breath. “It was the longest second,” Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said.

“I was just like, ‘Oh please God, don’t go in,” Stanford guard Haley Jones said. “You never know. She makes some wild shots because she’s that great.”

“I took a tough contested shot and it didn’t fall,” McDonald said afterward, holding back tears. “That’s what I remember.”

The shot hit the back of the rim, and Stanford won its first national championship in 29 years. Arizona, playing in the first national championship game in school history, was left with the ultimate what-if. McDonald lay on her back after the final buzzer sounded, before Pellington came over to pick her up.

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Stanford’s defense holds firm on the final possession as Aari McDonald misses the game-winning shot and the Cardinal come away with a 54-53 win.

The next person there was Arizona coach Adia Barnes, who put her arm around McDonald and squeezed hard. As Barnes called the rest of her team over, McDonald put her head down, bit her lip and bent forward, hands on knees, as her teammates came over.

This was it for her, after such a remarkable NCAA tournament run. Stanford harassed her all night, but she still carried her team to the end — willing the Wildcats back when it appeared all hope was lost at multiple times throughout the game.

Barnes made sure McDonald would get that last shot.

“It was going to be Aari or nothing,” Barnes said. “I knew she was going to be doubled, but running a screen was the best option. We knew she would catch it on the 3-point line. That’s what happened. But they did a really good job of denying us after the screen. They forced us to catch the ball really high. When Aari went to drive, there’s plenty of time. We work on that in practice with special situations, she was pretty much triple-teamed and couldn’t go downhill.

“At that point, we’ve been on Aari’s back for the whole tournament. She’s got to take that shot. I have to put the ball in her hands in that situation because she’s one of the reasons why we’re here.”

Indeed, what made Arizona’s unexpected tournament run so fun to watch was the joy and fearlessness McDonald brought to every game. She scored 20 or more points in every game except one — in the second round against BYU.

When Arizona needed her most, she came through — with 31 points in the first upset the Wildcats pulled in the tournament against Texas A&M in the Sweet 16, and then 26 in the stunning Final Four win over No. 1 seed UConn.

All eyes would be on her headed into the championship game. Being in the same conference, Stanford had done an excellent job on her defensively in their two previous matchups, holding her to a combined 11-of-43 in those first two meetings. Wilson got the call on McDonald again, and the game plan — at least early on — seemed to be focused on limiting her going to her left.

The strategy worked, as McDonald heaved shot after shot, missing more than she had during this tournament run. At halftime, she was 2-of-11, with five points, and 1-of-9 on contested shots.

“Having Anna Wilson on me, them jumping at everything, just making it kind of difficult for me,” McDonald said. “I would pretty much say it was the same [as the first two meetings]. Just more physical this time.”

VanDerveer said the physicality was a part of the mentality she wanted her entire team to bring into the game, noting how physical Stanford’s games against Louisville and South Carolina were during the tournament. To win, she told the Cardinal, they had to be grittier and more physical.

“They didn’t ever give [McDonald] space,” Barnes said. “She was just maneuvering and finding ways to go downhill. But a lot of bodies in the paint. Every time she went downhill, there were posts in the paint or weakside help. [It’s] very hard when we’re in the half court because a lot of attention is on Aari. They forced her into tough shots.

“The reality is, the last couple games she was making those tough shots. We took a lot of quick shots that were hard, a lot of off-balance shots, but they just didn’t fall. Very hard to shoot 29% and win a national championship game. We had to have some more shots fall.”

Though McDonald was off her game, she pressed on, and ultimately helped Arizona get back into the game after it trailed by 9 points with 7:30 remaining. She hit a pull-up 3 to close the gap to five. Then another 3 with 3:35 remaining closed the gap to 1. With that 3-pointer, McDonald tied the NCAA record for most 3s in one tournament with 22.

Arizona went to her down the stretch, and she drew fouls on ensuing possessions — hitting 3 of 4 free throws to close the gap to 54-53 with 36.6 seconds remaining. When Stanford could not get a shot off on its final possession, the stage was set for McDonald.

But she simply couldn’t will the shot to go in. McDonald finished 5-of-21 for 22 points. Four of those field goals were 3-pointers. After Barnes found McDonald on the floor as Stanford celebrated around them, she told her star player to pick her head up, that she trusted her with the game on the line, that the Wildcats should feel proud of how much they achieved.

“We’re walking out of here with a lot of pride,” McDonald said. “We have nothing to hang our heads for. We competed. We battled. We just lost to a very great team, an experienced team with talented players in all positions. They’re led by a pioneer to the game. We just look at the positives. Look how far we’ve come.”

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