As a player, Arizona coach Adia Barnes led the program on its most resounding 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 played 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 courts’ ends. 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 averaged 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 the 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.”
Texas A&M was just 2-of-8 shooting on 3-pointers and committed 19 turnovers that Arizona turned into 28 points.”
“We are an outstanding 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.”