From the first possession on Friday night, Arizona’s national semifinal game against Connecticut was a practice in slow-paced, grind-it-out basketball, with plenty of untouched shots and long, lab possession. This was what Arizona wanted.
The Wildcats quickly established their strategy: showing up for it was suffocating defense with plenty of stolen, energetic rebounding and 3-point shots. They took over after the No. 1 seed Huskies took over, racking up a few more fouls, which was optimal, but eventually won their 69-59 victory and ended their first trip to the NCAA women’s basketball title game to finish off their furious Won the opponent from start to finish. .
“We shocked the world tonight,” said Ari Macdonald, a senior whose game-high 26 points were really coming at moments when the third-seeded Wildcats needed him the most. “Keep betting against me and my teammates, we are going to prove you wrong.”
Arizona, the No. 3 seed, Yukon, the most prominent event in the history of the tournament, and its Herald Fresher, will face top-seeded Stanford in the final on Sunday after Paige Bookers.
McDonald instead took the stage, hitting two 3-point shots in the first quarter as the team went 6-of-13 on 3-pointers in the first half.
“The first five minutes of the game are important,” McDonald said. “Coach Barnes hates it when I take 3s in the first possession, but I was feeling it.”
Arizona coach, Adia Barnes, talked about the importance of not being intimidated by Ucino’s history.
“To win the championship, you just have to defeat that team once,” he told reporters after his program reached his first place in the Final Four.
The Wildcats had a 32-22 lead at halftime, leading Connecticut to their lowest scoring half-score of the season.
The Huskies showed spitting distance for the second half, which was a really important comeback. Most of its efforts were led by junior Christine Williams, who had 12 points in the first half and finished with 20 to lead the Huskies. But Arizona never really gave up and Williams played out for less than five minutes.
“I think we came out with the wrong mindset,” Williams said. “We thought it was going to be easy, I think, and we flared up.”
Anytime the Huskies saw that if they could have a chance to control, McDonald would hit an impossible-to-ignore circus shot – like he did with Avina Westbrook’s hand directly in front of her face in the second quarter.
“I don’t think we have to play against the guards and she has proved to be good tonight,” Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma said after the game. “We had no answer for him.”
Whenever Connecticut was on offense, the Wildcats “D Up!” Repeatedly. Guards Shaina Pellington and Bendu Yeni neutralized the Bookers, allowing guards who typically score 20 points per game, just one field goal in the first half. The Buchers, who averaged 52.4 percent shooting, finished the night with 18 points and shot 38.4 percent, missing eight of their 13 shots.
By the end of the first half, McDonald was running off the clock with the self-assurance of someone who had already won the game, waiting for the last seconds to tick off so he could try to hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer. Could do (he missed it).
Connecticut outscored Arizona in the third quarter, but not enough to dig out of the 10-point hole in which they started it.
The teams traded steals and turnovers, continuing their dirty, physical game, with Arizona holding the Huskies at a distance, while carefully draining the shot clock on each possession.
At one point, Wildcats guard Helena Pooyo scored with some difficult footwork to bring Connecticut’s deficit to 14 – the biggest Huskies of the season. Ariymma was immediately called a timeout, and Wildcat fans were ecstatic.
Arizona’s lead slowly began to shrink in the fourth quarter, as the Wildcats’ shots began to fall just as comfortably as they had in the first game. With seven minutes left in the game, however, McDonald hit a fadeaway jumper, helping Arizona breathe once again.
That cycle will repeat itself. With 4 minutes, 23 seconds, the Wildcats were up 9 points – a lead that seemed fragile, as the team had hit just two of their 10 previous shots and more and more Arizona players had been foul of fouls . Barnes took a timeout.
The Wildcats immediately smacked Williams hard and freed them both. But McDonald once again charged through traffic that seemed impenetrable to anyone else and wound up in the basket, battling through contact for buckets and 3-point play – and Williams was awarded his fifth foul. Used to drop out of the game. (The video replays show that he did not see McDonald in the play.)
The clock was ticking down, and with two minutes remaining, Buicker hit his fourth field goal to narrow the gap to 7 points. Then it fell to 6, and with one minute remaining, just 5 points separated the Hawkeyes from their fourth consecutive final. Connecticut started Arizona early, but the Wildcats threw five of their eight free throws in the final minutes of the game, and that was enough to seal the win.
“I have said during this year, we have a very immature group,” Ariaima said. “We need to grow up if we hope to come back here in the future.”
Barnes did not fully agree with that assessment.
“Would I like to face Yukon in a seven-match series?” he said. “No way.”
Now his team will face a fellow Stanford team, a fellow member of the Pac-12 that defeated the Wildcats twice this season.
But after landing Connecticut, Arizona seems unlikely to be intimidated by any opponent.
“We were Dalits,” McDonald said. “It makes us more difficult, everybody thinks we can’t beat these top teams. We are made for it, as the coaches say,” he said.