McDonald finished with 26 points on 7-for-17 shooting and added six rebounds. Arizona limited the Huskies (28-2) to 36 percent shooting. Connecticut came in leading the country in field goal shooting (52 percent) and was ranked fourth in scoring offense, averaging 82.7 points.
“I didn’t do anything different. I just kept playing my game, taking what the defense is giving me,” McDonald said. “I wanted to see how they played me. It’s not checkers. This is chess, so I’m always the next step ahead of my opponent. Nothing different, I’m just going to keep playing my game.”
Arizona, which led for all but 41 seconds, made 8 of 10 free throws down the stretch to seal the victory for a team that, before this season, had never advanced beyond the round of 16 in the NCAA tournament.
Connecticut never got closer than five points in the closing stages in losing for the fourth straight time in the national semifinals.
“I don’t take for granted how hard it is to get here. It’s very hard,” said Arizona Coach Adia Barnes. “All the chips have to fall, all the stars have to be aligned. All those things have to happen, and I’m just glad it happened to us. I’m glad that we got momentum when we needed it, and we’re playing some good basketball. I think we’re very lucky and fortunate to be here.”
Christyn Williams led the Huskies with 20 points before fouling out in the fourth quarter. Paige Bueckers added 18 points, but the first freshman to be selected national player of the year struggled throughout the game to get clean looks against Arizona’s pressure.
The Wildcats opened up a 41-29 lead via a 7-0 run in the third quarter after Connecticut had drawn within five points. Bendu Yeaney had two baskets for Arizona during the burst, and Trinity Baptiste made a three-pointer from the top of the arc to keep the Huskies on their heels.
The lead swelled to 48-34 with 1:37 left in the third quarter on Helena Pueyo’s jumper before Connecticut got back within single digits courtesy of Williams’s three-pointer and two free throws from Bueckers.
With 18 seconds left in the fourth quarter and the Huskies ahead, 68-67, Williams missed two foul shots, and the Lady Bears’ NaLyssa Smith secured the rebound, leading to an immediate timeout from Baylor Coach Kim Mulkey.
The Lady Bears ran down the clock, and Dijonai Carrington attempted a jumper to tie. Connecticut’s Aaliyah Edwards blocked the shot while appearing to make contact with Carrington, but no foul was called. Williams grabbed the loose ball and was fouled, making the second of two free throws.
Barnes also was making history on her own, joining South Carolina’s Dawn Staley to mark the first time two Black coaches had reached the Final Four in the same NCAA tournament.
The Wildcats opened the game as if they had been on the sport’s biggest stage before, getting 15 first-half points from McDonald and giving Connecticut fits defensively. The Huskies shot just 32 percent in the first half.
“We did not have any pressure,” said Barnes. “It’s a much easier situation to be us than it is U-Conn because the program is so good you’re expected to win, and that’s hard, We had a little bit of experience with that this year being a top 10 team or a top 12 team. It’s a little bit harder than being an unranked team chasing wins. For U-Conn there was more pressure. For us it’s a lot easier to play loose when there isn’t pressure.”
Connecticut trailed by as many as 12, 32-20, with 2:52 left in the first half when McDonald, playing with two personal fouls, connected on her fourth three-pointer.
Arizona continues to hold off U-Conn. as fourth quarter begins
Arizona continued its stifling defense against Connecticut to take a 48-39 lead into the fourth quarter.
Aari McDonald’s 17 points lead the Wildcats, who are making their first appearance in the national semifinals.
Christyn Williams has 15 points for Connecticut, and Paige Bueckers has 13 points to go along with five rebounds and two assists.
Arizona led by as many as 14, 48-34, with 1:37 remaining in the third quarter on Helena Pueyo’s jumper. It was Pueyo’s first basket of the game, leading to a Huskies timeout as the 11-time national champions faced their largest deficit of the season.
The Huskies countered with Evina Westbrook’s three-pointer and two free throws from Bueckers, the first freshman in women’s college basketball history to be selected Associated Press national player of the year.
Trailing by 10 at halftime, Connecticut had gotten back-to-back three-pointers from Paige Bueckers and Christyn Williams to get within 34-29 with 7:15 to play. Arizona answered with Bendu Yeaney’s turnaround jumper, Trinity Baptiste’s three-pointer and Yeaney’s layup to grow the lead to 41-29 with 4:11 to go.
Adia Barnes and Dawn Staley make history as Black head coaches in the Final Four
Dawn Staley made no bones about it — she was rooting for Arizona to advance to the Final Four. The South Carolina coach wasn’t thinking about matchups or anything that would have an impact on who won the 2021 NCAA women’s basketball tournament. She was simply thinking about representation.
The NCAA has been hosting a women’s basketball tournament since 1982, and for the first time in its history, the Final Four will feature two Black women as head coaches.
Staley and the Gamecocks, who won the 2017 national championship, will face Stanford at 6 p.m. Friday. On the other side of the bracket, the Adia Barnes-led Wildcats will make their first Final Four appearance and meet Connecticut at 9:30 p.m.
Hot-shooting Arizona takes 10-point lead over U-Conn. into halftime
Arizona got 15 points from Aari McDonald and played stifling defense on the way to a 32-22 halftime lead over Connecticut.
McDonald made 4 of 7 three-pointers, and Sam Thomas added eight points and three rebounds for Arizona, which held the Huskies to a season low in first-half points. The Wildcats scored 12 points off turnovers and forced Connecticut into 32 percent shooting.
Christyn Williams led the Huskies with 12 points. No other Connecticut player had more than five.
Arizona led by as many as 12, 32-20, after McDonald made her fourth three-pointer with 2:52 to go until halftime. McDonald was playing despite having picked up her second personal foul several minutes earlier and a brief stretch on the bench.
The Wildcats built a 20-10 lead early in the second quarter on Cate Reese’s layup after an offensive foul assessed to Connecticut’s Aubrey Griffin, but the Huskies got consecutive baskets from Williams and Aaliyah Edwards to get within six with 7:55 remaining before halftime.
Arizona races out to first quarter lead over U-Conn.
Aari McDonald scored eight points, including a layup with 19 seconds left, to push Arizona to a 16-10 lead over Connecticut after the first quarter of Friday’s second women’s Final Four matchup.
The Wildcats limited the 11-time national champions to 21 percent shooting in the first quarter and owned a 9-2 advantage in points off turnovers.
Paige Bueckers had five points for the Huskies. No other Connecticut player had more than two.
McDonald made two early three-pointers and Sam Thomas added another to give the Wildcats a 9-3 lead with 6:07 to play. The Huskies got within 9-6 at the first media timeout after Aaliyah Edwards made the second of two foul shots and Williams sank a fallaway jumper from the right side.
Arizona played the final four minutes of the quarter without starting forward Trinity Baptiste, who went to the bench with two personal fouls.
How they got here: Connecticut
NCAA tournament results: High Point, 102-59; Syracuse, 83-47; Iowa, 92-72; Baylor, 69-67
Elite Eight: Connecticut’s win caused an avalanche of criticism after an apparent foul of Baylor’s DiJonai Carrington on a last-second shot went uncalled.
How Connecticut can advance
Post up Aari McDonald whenever possible: Arizona will need a herculean effort from star guard Aari McDonald to prevent the Huskies from advancing. Because the Huskies don’t have a player that matches up well with McDonald’s speed, creativity and ability to score from anywhere, Connecticut has to make her work when on defense. While the 5-foot 6-senior has proved to be a capable defender on the perimeter she’s had a difficult time defending post-ups. With Connecticut’s three main guards being listed at 5 foot 11 or taller, it makes sense to take McDonald down low and force her to exert extra energy.
Continue to block out the noise: All tournament long, it’s always been something. First there were questions about Connecticut’s lack of experience, then people wondered if Connecticut had enough talent around AP player of the year Paige Bueckers to survive an off night and now the Huskies are the bad guys for reaping the benefits of a missed call. If Connecticut is to win its 12th national championship it will have to continue to block out that noise, because on paper the only thing in its way is itself.
Quotable: “I don’t think LeBron has ever won a game on a bad call by the official, you think? I probably doubt that in his career he’s ever won a game and decided to give it back because he looked at it and went, ‘That was a foul.’” — Connecticut Coach Geno Auriemma on LeBron James’ tweet following the no-call
How they got here: Arizona
NCAA tournament results: Stony Brook, 79-44; BYU, 52-46; Texas A&M, 74-59; Indiana, 66-53
Elite Eight: Behind a 33-point, 11-rebound performance from guard Aari McDonald, Arizona clinched the first women’s Final Four appearance in school history.
How Arizona can advance
Can’t just be happy to be here: When the Wildcats take the court it’ll be a lot of firsts for the program, but they won’t have the luxury of drinking that in versus a Connecticut team with so much tradition. As it has done for much of the tournament, Arizona must embrace the underdog mind-set instead of taking it as a slight. Not being included in the NCAA’s promotional video for the Final Four should help from a motivational point of view.
McDonald must dominate the matchup with Paige Bueckers: Because Arizona primarily plays its games on the Pac-12 Network — which is not easily accessible for much of the country — most people don’t realize just how good McDonald truly is. In the tournament, she’s averaging 25.3 points, 6.8 rebounds and 3 assists. McDonald’s supporting cast is limited offensively, so they’ll need every bit of what she can provide. With McDonald expected to guard Bueckers for much of the game, it’s vital that she not only outscores the AP player of the year but also locks her up on defense. If Bueckers prevails, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where Arizona wins.
Quotable: “I re-watched it [the NCAA Final Four promotional video] a couple of times. It was frustrating. I definitely took it as a sign of disrespect.” — McDonald after the Wildcats were omitted from the NCAA’s Women’s Final Four hype video
Players to watch tonight besides Paige Bueckers
Paige Bueckers is redefining what it means to be a freshman basketball player. The No. 1 overall recruit in America was named to the all-American team last week, making her a finalist for the most outstanding player award. That’s after being named an Associated Press First Team all-American, Big East Player and Freshman of the Year and Big East Tournament Most Outstanding Player.
She is averaging 20.1 points, 5.9 assists, 4.8 rebounds and 2.3 steals per game for Connecticut and is a ridiculously good shooter, connecting on 46 percent of her three-point attempts. Her performance against Baylor in the Elite Eight showcased all of her skills, scoring 28 points including 10 during a 19-0 run through the third and fourth quarters.
Bueckers isn’t the only player dazzling in this year’s tournament. Here are three other players to watch in this year’s Final Four.
How Connecticut freshman Paige Bueckers is breaking college basketball
There are precious few secrets anymore when it comes to Paige Bueckers, who was a Minnesota hoops phenom as a seventh-grader; who 13 months ago became the first high school girl to grace the cover of Slam magazine; who on any given day might dish out fashion tips or social-justice truth to her 671,000 Instagram followers; and who, as the final seconds of overtime ticked down on the evening of Feb. 8 in Storrs, Conn., might as well have worn a sign saying, “I WILL BE TAKING THIS LAST SHOT.”
The clock dwindling, the Connecticut freshman broke open. A defender draped on her, she gathered the ball near the top of the key. A hand in her face, she let it fly.
Bueckers’s dagger bounced impossibly high off the back rim before falling in — her 11th, 12th and 13th consecutive points for the Huskies down the stretch, and her 29th, 30th and 31st for the game as U-Conn., ranked No. 2 nationally at the time, took down top-ranked South Carolina.