Adia Barnes

Stanford and Arizona meet in all Pac-12 NCAA Women’s Final Four title game

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SAN ANTONIO — It’s been nearly three decades since Tara VanDerveer last won a national championship at Stanford.

She’ll have a chance to win her third title when the Cardinal face Pac-12 rival Arizona. The Wildcats are playing in their first championship game ever after knocking off top-ranked Connecticut in the Final Four.

“It’s just I think a credit to how competitive the Pac-12 is,” Stanford coach VanDerveer said.

It’s the first meeting of conference rivals in the championship game since South Carolina beat Mississippi State in 2017.

To get to the game the Cardinal got a little bit of luck edging South Carolina 66-65 on a basket by Haley Jones with 32 seconds left. The Cardinal survived two last-second misses by the Gamecocks.

Arizona didn’t need any last-second karma to beat the Huskies. Wildcats All-America Aari McDonald scored 26 points and the team played stifling defense on UConn, holding them to 22 points in the first half and leading by 10. UConn got within five with a minute left, but could get no closer.

The win made Adia Barnes the first coach to lead her alma mater to the championship game since Sonja Hogg guided Louisiana Tech to the first NCAA title in 1982 and was the runner up in 1983.

It’s been quite a year for VanDerveer and the Cardinal. The team was forced on the road for nearly 10 weeks because of the coronavirus. They’ll have spent 86 days in hotels during this nomadic season.

The Cardinal didn’t complain and went about their business. Along the way the Hall of Fame coach earned her 1,099th career victory to pass Pat Summitt for the most all-time in women’s basketball history.

These two Pac-12 teams met twice this season with the Cardinal winning both meetings. Stanford won 81-54 on New Year’s Day and 62-48 on Feb. 22.

The conference, which has had six different teams reach the Final Four since 2013 will be guaranteed its first champion since Stanford won in 1992.

McDonald powers Arizona past Indiana and into Final Four

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
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SAN ANTONIO — Arizona asks Aari McDonald to do just about everything for the Wildcats. And just about every game, she delivers all she’s got.

McDonald scored 33 points in a dizzying display of razzle-dazzle shot making and gutsy leadership in crunch time, carrying the No. 3 seed Wildcats to a 66-53 win over No. 4 seed Indiana on Monday night, sending Arizona to its first Final Four in women’s NCAA Tournament history.

“Just being a little player, I always play with a chip on my shoulder,” said McDonald, who stands just 5-foot-6 but used her small frame size to slip under and around Indiana defenders or shake them off the dribble.

“A lot of people say I’m too small. I’ll never do this, I’ll never do that. That drives me,” she said.

The Pac-12 player of the year controlled just about every Arizona possession, hitting the Hoosiers with slashing drives, timely rebounds and even a banked-in 3-pointer.

She briefly left the game with a twisted left ankle late in the fourth quarter, but had it taped up and limped back on the court to score six more points. Her three-point play with 34 seconds left put the exclamation point on the victory.

Arizona (20-5) advanced to Friday’s national semifinal against top-seeded UConn, which reached its 13th straight Final Four when it beat No. 2 seed Baylor earlier Monday.

Wildcats coach Adia Barnes, who led the Wildcats to the Sweet 16 as a point guard in 1998, is now the sixth coach to lead her alma mater to the women’s Final Four.

Barnes has said she took a risk when she returned to coach at Arizona five years ago, when it was one of the worst programs in the Pac-12. Then McDonald transferred from Washington and the two have been not-so-quietly building the program in the desert ever since.

“Aari, I asked her to do everything. She has done everything the whole time she’s been here,” Barnes. “And I’m proud of all of these young women around her. They fight and they play for her, and it’s just amazing.”

McDonald topped 30 points for the second straight tournament game. She scored 31 against Texas A&M two days earlier. Against the Hoosiers, she was 12-for-20 shooting and made 5 of 6 3-pointers.

“I always want to be better than I was the day before,” McDonald said.

History was going to be made whichever team won Monday night. The Hoosiers advanced past the Sweet 16 for the first time but their methodical, grinding game simply ran into a a player it couldn’t match for 40 minutes.

It worked for three quarters. After pulling back from an eight-point deficit in the third behind a workhorse night from Mackenzie Holmes in the post, the Hoosiers had tied it 48-48. But a scoring drought of more than three minutes kept them from making a charge in a game Indiana led only one minute of the second in the second quarter.

Holmes scored 20 and grabbed eight rebounds to lead Indiana (21-6), and the Hoosiers tried to use her presence in the post to control the game until the late scoring problems.

Arizona made consecutive 3-pointers in the middle of the fourth quarter, the latter from Helena Pueyo off a bullet pass from McDonald, for a 57-50 lead. Pueyo made two 3-pointers in the final quarter.

“I feel like we got some good looks, we couldn’t put an exclamation point on some of them,” Indiana coach Teri Moren said. “It was tough for us, but I feel like we gave it everything we got and we didn’t let up for one second. And that’s all I can ask for from my team.”

The tension of the biggest night in program history for both teams showed early in a timid, ragged start as the first 10 shots of the game misfired before McDonald finally got a short jumper to fall. Once McDonald started heating up, she scored 10 of Arizona’s first 14 points.

McDonald even grabbed a game-high 11 rebounds, including one she ripped from and Indiana player’s hands for a layup to close the third quarter.

“She’s an elite player and she stepped up big time,” Holmes said. “She got to the rim well, she can score on all three levels … We gave it our best shot, but she hit a lot of tough shots on us tonight.”

STAT LINE

Indiana shot 36% and was 0 of 9 on 3-pointers. The Hoosiers were 13 of 17 on free throws but got zero points off their bench and only got eight second-chance points.

Aari McDonald propels Arizona over Texas A&M 74-59

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
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SAN ANTONIO — As a player, Arizona coach Adia Barnes led the program on its deepest march into the women’s NCAA Tournament in program history.

Until this year, that is. Her current Wildcats team has gone even farther.

Aari McDonald, the Pac-12 player of the year, scored 31 points No. 3 Arizona beat No. 2 Texas A&M 74-59 on Saturday night in the Sweet 16, sending the Wildcats to the regional final for the first time.

Arizona poured in 13 team 3-pointers with McDonald making six from long range.

“We are peaking at the right time,” McDonald said. “We are ready to make more history.”

The program had made only one previous trip to the Sweet 16 when Barnes was playing for the Wildcats in 1998. Now they advance to Monday night’s Mercado Region final against No. 5 Indiana, which upset top-seed North Carolina State earlier Saturday.

“I was 20 when I graduated and we left our legacy,” Barnes said. “So I always tell these young women, `Leave your legacy, leave your mark.’ And all these players came when no one believed in Arizona.”

McDonald had a game for the ages for Arizona (19-5) on both ends of the court. The conference defensive player of the year led the effort to shut down Texas A&M guard Jordan Nixon, whose late-game heroics carried the Aggies through the first two rounds.

Nixon scored 35 points in the second round, but managed just three points against the Wildcats. Aaliyah Wilson scored 17 points to lead Texas A&M (25-3).

“If we wanted to win, I had to shut her down,” McDonald said. “It starts with her. I had to lock her down.”

McDonald came in averaging 19.6 points and scored 19 by halftime in carrying Arizona to a 35-32 lead. That stretched to 13 by the end of the third quarter as Arizona made four 3-pointers, three by McDonald, in the period.

Her third one, bounced on the front of the rim, tipped to backboard and fell in to put Arizona ahead 56-44 as McDonald clenched both fists and gave a yell. And just to put an exclamation point on the quarter, Helena Pueyo sprinted back on defense to block a fast break layup.

Texas A&M had won its first two games by a total of six points and now had to make a desperate bid to rally in front of a small but boisterous Aggies crowd in the Alamodome, just a three-hour drive from campus.

The Aggies cut the lead to 59-48 on Ciera Johnson’s layup to start the fourth. But three Texas A&M turnovers and consecutive 3-pointers from Sam Thomas and Cate Reese had the Wildcats in total control with 4:41 to play.

“When they made their roll, we couldn’t answer back because of turnovers,” Texas A&M coach Gary Blair said. “But we missed a lot of layups. We missed a lot of post play. We didn’t have the 3-point shooters that Arizona had.”

STAT LINE

Texas A&M was just 2-of-8 shooting on 3-pointers and committed 19 turnovers that Arizona turned into 28 points.”

“We are a very good defensive team. We are going to grind you out,” Barnes said. “We felt A&M hadn’t been pressured like we could pressure.”

STILL A TROPHY WINNER

Wilson, a senior, said she’ll most remember her season with the Aggies for winning the program’s first regular-season Southeastern Conference championship and not the earlier-than-expected NCAA Tournament exit.

“We kept fighting and we fought every night, every game,” Wilson said. “We won the regular season SEC championship. We hadn’t done that. We made history this year.”

Arizona women in 1st Sweet 16 since ’98 after win over BYU

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
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SAN ANTONIO — Aari McDonald came back for another season at Arizona to do something special. Adia Barnes returned to her alma mater as coach for the same reason.

How sweet it is for McDonald, the reigning Pac-12 player of the year, and the current coach who was the league’s top player in 1998, the only other time the Wildcats got this far in the women’s NCAA Tournament.

McDonald had 17 points and 11 rebounds, along with a game-sealing steal, and Arizona outlasted BYU 52-46 on Wednesday night to advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time since Barnes’ senior season.

“Aari came back, came on a mission,” said Barnes, in her fifth season coaching the Wildcats and under contract through 2025-26. “She decided to not go pro. … 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.”

The third-seeded Wildcats (18-5) are in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2005. They would have made it last season, when they were 24-7 before the tourney was canceled because of the pandemic.

Arizona finally went ahead to stay on a 3-pointer by Sam Thomas with 3:47 left, not long after McDonald’s 3 cut their deficit to one. No. 11 seed BYU (19-6) had matched its biggest lead of the game on a layup by Shaylee Gonzales with just over five minutes left.

“I looked up at the clock and I was like, `OK, we’re up four. We’ve got five minutes left. We can do it.’ I totally believed in my team. … It’s very frustrating to have that lead and to lose it,” Gonzales said. “Lots of people thought that we didn’t deserve to be in this NCAA Tournament, but I hope these couple of games really proved to everyone what kind of team we are.”

Second-team All-American McDonald capped the Mercado Region game when she stole the ball from Gonzales, the co-West Coast Conference player of the year, and drove for a layup with 3 seconds left.

“Definitely didn’t want to end my season, didn’t want to go home,” McDonald said. “I’m proud of this team because the year before we would have got rattled. … But we were cool, calm and collected. We came together and we played together.”

The Wildcats stayed on the court at UTSA for more than 15 minutes after they finished to watch the Texas A&M-Iowa State game on the video board to see who they would play in the Sweet 16. They left the court when that game went to overtime, before the Aggies won 84-82.

Texas native Cate Reese had 12 points for Arizona, and Trinity Baptiste had 11 rebounds before fouling out.

Gonzales had 16 points for BYU. Tegan Graham had 13.

DIFFERENT AS A COACH

Asked how different the feeling was to get to the Sweet 16 as a coach as opposed to when she did it as a player, Barnes responded, “coaching is a lot harder than playing. Because as a player, you’re kind of oblivious to a lot of things. You just kind of go out and play.”

Barnes said it is also more meaningful and gratifying, getting to watch the players being rewarded for their hard work.

BIG PLAYS

Arizona went ahead in the third quarter after an impressive spurt by Reese, the 6-foot-2 forward and first McDonald’s All-American to play at Arizona after a standout prep career in Cypress, Texas – almost 200 miles from San Antonio. Reese screamed going back down the court after a tiebreaking 3-pointer from the top of the key. After a three-point play by Gonzales put BYU up by one, Reese took an inbound pass and cut back inside for a strong layup, and added another 3 soon after getting whistled for a 3-second violation.

NO SWEET FINISH

BYU went to the Sweet 16 in coach Jeff Judkins’ first season in 2002, and again in 2014, but missed a chance to get there again.

The Cougars may have been the last team put in the 64-team field after a last-second loss to Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference Tournament championship game. The Cougars opened the NCAA tourney with a 69-66 upset of Rutgers, with Gonzales making the last of her six straight free throws with 13.4 seconds left.

No. 4 Stanford women top No. 9 Arizona, wrap up Pac-12 title

Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports
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STANFORD, Calif. — Stanford spent two months on the road this season because of local health department restrictions on sports – a major reason why winning the Pac-12 Conference title was deeply meaningful for Hall of Fame coach Tara VanDerveer’s team.

Among the many championships on VanDerveer’s resume, this was one of the most special.

Kiana Williams scored 15 points and No. 4 Stanford clinched its first regular-season league title in seven years, beating ninth-ranked Arizona 62-48 on Monday night.

“I’m glad I was wearing my mask. I have to say I get a little emotional because it’s such a great thing that this team has accomplished,” VanDerveer said. “But not only that, it’s how they have been as teammates, how they have been mature. It’s been amazing, so you want good things for people who are like that. I’m really proud of the leadership of our team. I’m really proud of the sisterhood. They really care about each other, the unselfishness. And I told our team that. There’s not a team I’ve wanted it so badly for with this team.”

Lexie Hull added 16 points and nine rebounds for the Cardinal (21-2, 18-2 Pac-12), who won their 10th straight game to capture the program’s first league title since 2014. Oregon won the past three.

“I think for all of us it means so much. The two months we were on the road we were around each other and that was it. We really grew closer and we were a family, and we still are,” Hull said. “We care for each other so much that winning something like this means a lot to us.”

Arizona star Aari McDonald scored 20 points despite a slow start and missing all six of her 3-point tries. She began 1 for 8, was 2 of 11 at halftime as her team trailed 31-25, and finished 8 of 24.

“She did hit her little pull-up, but we were willing to live with that,” VanDerveer said.

The Wildcats (15-3, 13-3) went more than four minutes without scoring late in the first half, missing five straight field goals during one stretch and 10 of 11 as they finished the half shooting 29% (8 for 28).

“They made Aari really work to take pull-up jumpers, which is a really hard shot with congestion. It wasn’t easy,” Arizona coach Adia Barnes said. “We need some other productivity. They made us pay for the little mistakes. We didn’t think we played our best game. They make you do that. They make you play ugly.”

Arizona’s second seven-game winning streak of the season ended just like the first one, with a loss to Stanford. The Wildcats were 7-0 before they took a lopsided loss at home to the Cardinal on Jan. 1.

“We’ve got to get better, work on the little things, go back and watch film,” McDonald said. “There’s a lot of basketball left to be played.”

Haley Jones had 13 points, eight rebounds and two steals for Stanford but also committed seven of her team’s 16 turnovers.

Stanford began 5 for 14 to 4 of 13 by Arizona as the teams were tied at 13 after one quarter. Only six free throws were shot in the first half, the Wildcats going 4 for 4 and Stanford 0 for 2.

“We have a great conference and we’re really proud of winning our regular season,” VanDerveer said. “Now we want to go to Las Vegas and win the tournament.”

BIG PICTURE

Arizona: The Wildcats surrendered 24 points in the paint to Stanford. … Arizona had won five of its last eight against Top-10 opponents and six of nine against Top-25 competition. … McDonald has scored in double figures in 84 consecutive games, longest active streak in the country. … The Wildcats suffered just their 10th defeat in the last 55 games.

Stanford: Freshman F Cameron Brink fouled out with 2:16 left, contributing 10 points and seven rebounds. … Stanford has not lost at home to the Wildcats since a 68-65 defeat on Jan. 6, 2001. … The Cardinal are 5-1 against ranked opponents this season. … Stanford secured the No. 1 seed and a bye in the Pac-12 Tournament. … The Cardinal shot 57.9% against Arizona State on Friday – their highest percentage of the season – then followed that up by shooting 36% on Monday.

UP NEXT

Arizona: Closes out the regular season at rival Arizona State on Sunday.

Stanford: Hosts California on Sunday to conclude the regular-season slate.

Thomas and McDonald lead Arizona to win over Washington

Dana Sparks/The Register-Guard
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TUCSON, Ariz. — If senior Sam Thomas played her final home game Sunday, she made it one to remember.

Thomas had 20 points including a career-high six 3-pointers, added a season-high seven rebounds and had three blocked shots when No. 10 Arizona ran its winning streak to six games with 75-53 victory over Washington on Sunday.

“Sam was aggressive,” Arizona coach Adia Barnes said. “She was looking for her shot, feeling it. We know Sam is always going to be constant and consistent on her defense. But when she is looking for her shot and she’s hitting them, we’re just a better team overall.”

Since the NCAA is allowing everyone an extra season of eligibility, Thomas could return next year as well as fellow seniors Aari McDonald and Trinity Baptiste.

None has made their decision public, although McDonald is expected to be a first round pick in the WNBA draft if she leaves school.

“I’m not sure I’ll be three-for-three,” Barnes said. “I’ll be one-for-three or two-for-three.”

McDonald had 20 points and tied a season high with eight assists, Cate Reese had 12 points and Shaina Pellington had 11 for the Wildcats (14-2, 12-2), off to their best league start in program history.

Arizona shot 55.1% from the field, 63.6% in the first half, and made nine of their first 10 3-pointers. They finished 12-of-16 from three-point range, 75%, setting a school record for three-point percentage in a game.

“My teammates always tell me to shoot the ball more, so on senior night I thought I would listen,” Thomas said.

“We knew Washington was going to play a lot of zone, many different types of zone, so we knew the threes were going to be open. I just tried to do my job and hit when my teammate fed me the ball. They kept feeding me again and again.”

Quay Miller had 13 points and nine rebounds and Haley Van Dyke had 12 points for the Huskies (5-11, 2-11), who broke an eight-game losing streak at Arizona State on Friday.

The Wildcats opened a 13-point lead in the first quarter, and Thomas’ fifth three gave them a 48-28 lead three minutes into the second half.

PLAYING POSTPONED GAMES PROBLEMATIC

Arizona has had five Pac-12 games postponed because of coronavirus issues in its program and others, including one at No. 8 UCLA, and Barnes called it unlikely that all the games will be made up.

“It is very difficult at this point in the season to make up five games,” Barnes said. “I don’t know if I want to be playing multiple weeks of three games a week. We’re just not sure what’s ahead.”

Stanford has played 17 conference games, most away from home because of Santa Clara County health restrictions since lifted. Oregon State has played only nine league games.

MIDNIGHT MADNESS

Moments after Arizona’s men beat Oregon State on Thursday night, McDonald was on floor taking shots. She was 24 of 78 from the field in a mini-slump the previous four games before making 6 of 13 against Washington.

“I have to keep working on my craft,” McDonald said. “It doesn’t stop. I have to find that confidence again, get in that rhythm, and I’m sure I’ll be fine.”

McDonald made two of four 3-pointers against Washington and is on pace to set the Arizona season record for three-point percentage, 32.0.

BIG PICTURE

Washington could not keep up with Arizona, but it appears to have a solid group of building blocks in junior Alex Van Dyke, sophomore Miller, freshman Tameiya Sadler and redshirt freshman Nia Lowery, a four-star recruit who missed 2019-20 with a foot injury. The Huskies limited Arizona State to 35 points Friday, the fewest points by a conference opponent since 1978.

Arizona and Stanford (15-2) are the only Pac-12 teams with two conference losses, and if the Wildcats win their final three scheduled games they could claim their first outright league title, at least by winning percentage. The Wildcats and Cardinal are scheduled to play at Stanford on Feb. 22. Arizona and Stanford were co-champs in 2003-04 in Nicole Powell’s senior year with the Cardinal.

UP NEXT

Washington plays host to Utah on Friday.

Arizona visits California on Friday.